SciTech

How Things Work: FCC Spectrum Laws

When you take a call on your cell phone, listen to the radio as you drive down the highway, or tune into satellite television at home, you probably take for granted how those signals are getting to you. It was Arthur C. Clarke who so aptly put it: ?Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.? And if you took for granted the technology behind today?s wireless wonders, you never even gave a thought to the policy that lets them exist. Welcome to the exciting world of ?spectrum policy,? in which our representatives in the U.S. government have been laying down the law for almost 80 years.
Spectrum policy has its origins in the Radio Act of 1927, in which Congress established the the Federal Radio Commission, the first regulatory organization for the airwaves. It wasn?t for seven years, however, that more comprehensive rules were passed with the Communications Act of 1934. One of the major results of this act was the creation of the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC.
The FCC, under the auspices of the Communication Act, establishes and supervises policy regarding commercial uses of wired and wireless communications in the United States. Over the years, there have been many amendments to the Federal Communications Act to keep pace with technology, but its spirit remains intact.
Unfortunately, the public has very little knowledge of what the FCC actually does. That is because the nature of spectrum policy is very technical, and the effects of such policy aren?t readily seen. When was the last time you cared about at what frequency maritime navigation radio or garage door openers operated? With just a little education, this can be changed. We can start with some basic information about the electromagnetic spectrum.
Most people know that light travels in waves. It turns out that light is only one part of a continuum of electromagnetic phenomena; these phenomena are characterized by their frequency, which is a measure of how many times a wave moves from crest to crest in a constant period of time. The accepted unit of frequency is the Hertz (abbreviated Hz) one cycle per second.
By drawing a line that represents low frequencies on the left and high frequencies on the right, one can set up the electromagnetic spectrum and divide it into parts. From left to right, the common bands of the spectrum are known as: radio, microwave, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays. These many types of waves are all just photons of different wavelengths. Over the years scientists have given bands of the spectrum different names for expedience. It is much easier to say ?radio waves? than ?500 MHz electromagnetic radiation?.
With a basic understanding of electromagnetic waves, spectrum policy becomes a little friendlier. Spectrum policy is primarily concerned with radio and microwaves ranging from 3 kHz to 300 GHz. It is at these frequencies that wireless communication is most viable. For example, you wouldn?t want to listen to your favorite rock station on a gamma-ray radio; the sheer energy these high frequencies carry would probably give you radiation poisoning before the song was finished.
Frequencies lower than 3 kHz are also impractical. Because their wavelengths are so large, they would need proportionally larger antennas. The Navy recently closed a 28-mile-long antenna in Wisconsin that allowed it to communicate with ballistic missile submarines deep under the ocean.
With the battle lines drawn, the question remains who gets which frequencies. Many people compare the spectrum to a natural resource, like oil; its distribution is very important. The government reserves almost 70 percent of the usable spectrum for itself. Every government radio application, from military satellites and forest ranger walkie-talkies to CIA communications and air traffic control, takes place on these reserved frequencies.
Not surprisingly, a separate agency is responsible for government allocation of frequency: the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The FCC has no control over use of these government frequencies. There are several rationales behind this: Reserving a wide band of frequencies for themselves ensures that the government will never have to pay third parties for communications. The NTIA, in the interests of national security, can keep the usage of certain frequency bands classified. The downside of this is that very little oversight exists to see if these frequencies are being used efficiently.
The remaining 30 percent of the radio spectrum is doled out by the FCC. They classify frequencies in two ways: licensed and unlicensed. Unlicensed spectrum may be used by anyone, anytime. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees against signal interference with unlicensed spectrum. This usually isn?t a problem with unlicensed spectrum because many devices operating on these bands are low power, such as cordless phones, EZ-Pass tags, wireless LANs, and microwave ovens.
Licensed spectrum makes up the bulk - 98 percent - of the frequencies given out by the FCC. Cell phones, radio, and television are the primary users of licensed spectrum, and they are big business. Television advertising revenue in 2001 was over $35 billion. Radio had almost $20 billion in revenue. With this kind of money, politics are bound to get involved, and the FCC hasn?t escaped. Over the years, companies have lobbied the FCC for use of certain frequencies ? say, the 2 GHz range for satellite radio. It used to be the case that companies would get what they wanted. Until the last decade or so, unused frequencies were still available, but that is no longer the case.
Today, frequencies are becoming scarce. Consequently, they?re becoming much more valuable. This forces companies to innovate more efficient uses of spectrum, so we?ve seen many advances in communications technology. Even so, the value of certain frequencies has skyrocketed - up to $1 billion per MHz for certain bands in cellular use. Some people have begun to question why the FCC was giving away such valuable frequencies as political favors, so they responded by forming an investigative group known as the Spectrum Policy Task Force. It is this group?s job to evaluate 80 years of policy and determine where reform is needed. One recommendation they?ve made is the increased use of spectrum auctions, where frequencies are sold to the highest bidder. The Bush administration hopes to make over $25 billion on spectrum auctions in the near future. Keep that in mind the next time you are on your cell phone and you hear someone say ?Talk is cheap.?