Mathias On Mobility: Paving The Real Information Superhighway

The FCC's mobile-broadband auction process is little more than the path to yet more hidden taxation.
We all focus on the cool technologies and products which make contemporary wireless so exciting. Handsets are nothing less than powerful, albeit tiny, PCs. Broadband wireless offers megabits of throughput, with a lot more on the near-term horizon. But none of this is possible without a highway upon which drive all those handsets.

This is the domain of spectrum policy and regulation, and herein lays the greatest challenge to the future success of wireless overall. Things are not going well, and history is to blame.

OK, let's blame technology a little, too. Radios which stayed on-frequency weren't easy to build way back when, and almost all were specialized for particular applications. It thus made sense to have a spectrum-regulation policy which considered making orderly use of the airwaves by reserving particular frequency bands for particular applications.

Historically, the biggest chunk of spectrum space went to whatever was popular at the time. This is why government has so much, and why the broadcasters also have vast amounts of prime spectral real estate. But times change. Back in the mid-1990s, it became clear that more bandwidth would be required for mobile (and eventually broadband) applications.

At the same time, governments around the world, strapped for cash, began to realize that an auction process could bring vast amounts of money to the general coffers. Thus spectrum regulation took on a new goa: not just the orderly use of a precious natural resource, but also vacuuming vast amounts of cash out of the customers forced to pay billions in licensing fees.

You may have heard about the FCC's plans for a national broadband policy, which includes allocating (actually, re-allocating) 300-500 MHz of spectrum to new mobile broadband services. This makes sense, except that that spectrum will likely come out the pool currently occupied by the TV broadcast industry, and they are none too happy about this.

These guys got all their spectrum at no charge, and hey, why shouldn't they be allowed to operate broadband services in the spectrum they already have? (Note that I don’t use the word "own" here.) That’s a political, not a technical, question.

My real purpose in this column is to suggest that the auction process is little more than the path to yet more hidden taxation. Prices for wireless broadband would be lower if this burden on the carriers didn't exist. While we're at it, let's break the FCC into at least two pieces, one which regulates and one which (if it must) generates revenue.

Note that a similar division was recently put into place for the Federal agency which collects similar fees on the oil industry. Of course, it took the huge oil spill off Louisiana to get the bureaucrats moving in this case, so I'm not holding my breath.

But there's an even bigger problem at work here, and that is that the regulators' current model of allocating spectrum to particular applications no longer makes sense. We can build very sophisticated cognitive radios today which can quickly switch frequencies and other operational parameters on a moment's notice.

This means that we really should be looking not at licensing spectrum to individual operators, but rather deploying large pooled frequency bands that can be allocated based on instantaneous need; a spot market in licensed spectrum, if you will. No entity, perhaps with the exception of those involved in national security, should have exclusive access to spectrum.

Today's technology allows us to deploy on-demand, priority-access, open-access, and network-neutral wireless broadband services that can easily serve us all, and, in the process, make the best use of that very precious natural resource. Do we have the political will to allow our thinking to be thus interrupted? I personally doubt it. But with the information superhighway increasingly becoming a highway in the sky, it's time for such an interruption to reach the front burner in the policy-making kitchen. The alternative is the perpetuation of the politics of scarcity, which seem to enrich everyone but the customer.

Craig Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile advisory firm based in Ashland, MA. Craig is an internationally recognized expert on wireless communications and mobile computing technologies. He is a well-known industry analyst and frequent speaker at industry conferences and trade shows.