FCC Streamlines Experimental License Rules

Last week the FCC released Report and Order FCC 13-15 modifying its rules regarding experimental licenses.

The R&O added three new types of licenses: the program license, the medical testing license and the compliance testing license. Program licensees have more flexibility in licensing of equipment and spectrum. The new rules include a process allowing the FCC to specify “Innovation Zones” in which program licensees could operate in addition to their other authorized areas of operation. The broadcasting experimental license was consolidated into a new subpart of Part 5. All developmental licensing rules have been moved into Part 5 and all existing developmental licenses will be converted to experimental licenses.

In the R&O, the FCC states: “To remove the confusion among license applicants caused by the varying rules, we consolidate[d] our developmental rules from various rule parts and our experimental rules from Parts 5, 73, and 74 into a consolidated Part 5. As proposed, we are retaining all necessary distinctions for broadcast-specific experimentation in the revised rules.”

The broadcast-specific rules and the processes for evaluating them by the Media Bureau are not being changed.

Perhaps the most significant change is the creation of Program Experimental Radio Licenses that will encompass all basic research and experimentation areas. The Program Experimental Radio Licenses allow a wider range of experiments without specific approval. They are available only to qualified entities: a college or university with a graduate research program in engineering that is accredited by ABET, a research laboratory, a hospital or health care institution, a manufacturer of radio frequency equipment, or a manufacturer that integrates RF equipment into its end products.

Some of the comments filed in the proceeding expressed concern that the extra flexibility in the program licenses could result in increased interference. The FCC R&O states, “We emphasize that under the eligibility rules we adopt, we will limit program experimental licensees to those entities that have demonstrated experience with RF technology (or have partnered with an entity possessing the requisite expertise) and have defined geographic areas. By so doing, program experiments will be unlikely to cause harmful interference to incumbent spectrum licensees, but if that should inadvertently occur, the experimenter will be able to quickly remedy it. To ensure that this condition is met, we will require each applicant for a program license to accompany its application with an explanation of how its staff possesses the expertise with RF technology to supervise all experiments to achieve compliance with this condition, and to so certify in its application.”

To alleviate concerns over potential interference from program license operations (although the program licenses will be granted for a series of experiments), the document noted that “each individual experiment must be preceded by a Web posting containing information required by the rules.”

The posting has to be done at least 10 days before the experiment begins. Incumbent licensees may object to an experiment and contact the program licensee to resolve the issues, but the FCC retains sole authority to prevent a program licensee from beginning operations or require cessation of an existing operation. I find this interesting in light of the Google experimental license that I reported on last week. As the new rules had not taken effect, the FCC required Google to coordinate with existing licensees in the AWS spectrum it was using. Under the new rules, Google would not necessarily have to coordinate with Clearwire. However, to qualify for a program license Google would have to post an interference analysis; something it didn't do.

The FCC cautioned: “we recognize that the size and scope of this analysis will necessarily be driven by the specifics of the particular planned experiment. In a similar vein, we conclude that coordination requirements, when appropriate, can only be determined on a case-by-case basis.”

In commenting, Clearwire raised the issue of Part 5 experimental STAs being issued for commercial purposes, such as coverage of a sporting event, when the application “did not clearly indicate a research or experimental purpose.” The Report and Order addressed this by stating, “We rely on our staff to exercise their expertise and discretion in determining whether particular applications meet the requirements of the Part 5 rules and find no need to modify those rules. We find that our current approach reduces administrative burdens and provide cost savings to the public.”

Broadcasters interested in testing new transmission systems should refer to the new Part 5.203, Experimental authorizations for licensed broadcast stations. As it I read it, stations wanting to experiment with new transmission technology should be able to do so under these rules as long as they meet the FCC's minimum programming requirements using conventional ATSC transmission.

Readers should refer to the Report and Order for details on the medical testing license and the compliance testing license. I didn't discuss them here as they have little impact on broadcasters, except for possible operation on spectrum allocated for broadcasting or broadcast auxiliary services.

Doug Lung

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.