Powell: Time to Rethink Spectrum Policy

The FCC's Spectrum Policy Task Force has been contemplating the airwaves since June and if FCC Chairman Michael Powell's words in an Oct. 30 speech are any indication, the task force could upset long-held assumptions of the way government should regulate electromagnetic radio waves.

The task force will give its recommendations to the commission on November 7, Powell said. Meanwhile, he let the audience at the Silicon Flatirons Telecommunications Program in Boulder, Colo. in on his take on spectrum management.

For starters, Powell said that the government has been looking at interference backward. Government, he said, should look to advanced receiver technology as well, not just at the transmission end. "Emerging communications technologies are becoming more tolerant of interference through sensory and adaptive capabilities in receivers," he said. "Our new policies should facilitate and support such innovative technologies that may increase spectral efficiency."

Policymakers should rethink the concept of spectrum scarcity, Powell said. "Today's digital migration means that more and more data can be transmitted in less and less bandwidth," he said; "Scarcity will not be replaced by abundance; there will still be places and times when services and spectrum are contained. However, spectrum need no longer be the lodestar by which we guide the spectrum ship of state."

Powell also advocated more flexibility for spectrum licensees to help the spectrum find its best use.

The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association hailed the speech as finally addressing the elephant in the room - the policy question in full view but conspicuously ignored.

"It is difficult to underestimate the magnitude of Chairman Powell's challenge," CTIA President Tom Wheeler said. "On the one hand, the government has, over the years, leveraged its spectrum licensing authority to justify excessive intrusion into the minutiae of the marketplace. On the other hand, there is a legitimate role for government in preventing spectrum anarchy where the absence of rules increases interference and degrades the consumer experience."

The Spectrum Policy Task Force has received more than 200 comments from the public and held four public workshops. Powell said the task force's upcoming report will serve as a catalyst for policy change.