Will LTE-U Mark the End of the Unlicensed Spectrum Commons?

by on October 14, 2015 · 2 comments

Those of us with deep reservations about the push for ever more unlicensed spectrum are having many of our fears realized with the new resistance to novel technologies using unlicensed spectrum. By law unlicensed spectrum users have no rights to their spectrum; unlicensed spectrum is a managed commons. In practice, however, existing users frequently act as if they own their spectrum and they can exclude others. By entertaining these complaints, the FCC simply encourages NIMBYism in unlicensed spectrum.

The general idea behind unlicensed spectrum is that by providing a free spectrum commons to any device maker who complies with certain simple rules (namely, Part 15’s low power operation requirement), device makers will develop wireless services that would never have developed if the device makers had to shell out millions for licensed spectrum. For decades, unlicensed spectrum has stimulated development and sale of millions of consumer devices, including cordless phones, Bluetooth devices, wifi access points, RC cars, and microwave ovens.

Now, however, many device makers are getting nervous about new entrants. For instance, Globalstar is developing a technology, TLPS, based on wifi standards that will use some unlicensed spectrum at 2.4 GHz and mobile carriers would like to market an unlicensed spectrum technology, LTE-U, based on 4G LTE standards that will use spectrum at 5 GHz.

This resistance from various groups and spectrum incumbents, who fear interference in “their” spectrum if these new technologies catch on, was foreseeable, which makes these intractable conflicts even more regrettable. As Prof. Tom Hazlett wrote in a 2001 essay, long before today’s conflicts, when it comes to unlicensed devices, “economic success spells its own demise.” Hazlett noted, “Where an unlicensed firm successfully innovates, open access guarantees imitation. This not only results in competition…but may degrade wireless emissions — perhaps severely.”

On the other hand, the many technical filings about potential interference to existing unlicensed devices are red herrings. Prospective device makers in these unlicensed bands have no duty to protect existing users. Part 15 rules say that unlicensed users like wifi and Bluetooth “shall not be deemed to have any vested or recognizable right to continued use of any given frequency by virtue of prior registration or certification of equipment” and that “interference must be accepted.” These rules, however, put the FCC in a self-created double bind: the agency provides no interference protection to existing users but its open access policy makes interference conflicts likely.

There is a concerted effort, then, by some wireless industry associations, tech journalists, and tech-focused nonprofits to ignore the Part 15 rules and suggest that open access no longer applies. In particular, there are suggestions that LTE-U must or should comply with wifi-like listen-before-talk mechanisms before using the unlicensed commons. Chris Lewis at Public Knowledge insinuated as much in a blog post on the issue. He states the correct but legally irrelevant fact that early versions of LTE-U don’t use listen-before-talk protocols and then adds a confusing non sequitur, “This is in violation of basic Wi-Fi standards.”

The notion that LTE-U or any other new technology must employ the wifi industry’s preference, listen-before-talk, is wrong. There are tens of millions of Part 15 devices that don’t use listen-before-talk, including cordless phones, garage door openers, Bluetooth devices, and RC toys. There are different sharing etiquettes and the FCC has generally been hands-off regarding what etiquette device makers should use since, first, the strict Part 15 power limits mitigate most problems and second, interference is typically reciprocal and parties have an incentive to coordinate.

Interestingly, the FCC has required some unlicensed devices to employ listen-before-talk protocols in the unlicensed PCS band. Never heard of it? The band is a wireless graveyard. Aside from a few cordless telephones, it’s had very little use, in part because the FCC required a complex listen-before-talk etiquette that raises the cost of producing equipment. In light of this failed experiment, the FCC probably has little appetite (or aptitude) for predicting via technology mandates which sharing etiquette will most benefit consumers.

Further, unlicensed spectrum incumbents show a selective sensitivity to interference considering their unlicensed devices face interference daily. It’s impossible to approximate the severity and regularity of everyday interference but focusing on potential interference from new services like LTE-U or TLPS, which use spectrum sharing etiquettes, and ignoring the effects of, say, poorly configured or legacy wifi access points or microwave ovens in the 2.4 GHz band is akin to complaining about hearing your next-door neighbor’s TV volume when there’s a rock concert playing in your front yard. Microwave ovens are powerful emitters, typically around 400 to 800 watts compared to a 1-watt wifi device. While microwave ovens are built to shield most emissions from escaping, none are perfect and they are a frequent source of wireless interference in households and offices around the country. Relatedly, in apartments, condos, or dormitories with unmanaged wifi systems, interference occurs regularly.

The FCC sends very mixed signals regarding unlicensed policy. It formally provides no interference protection to unlicensed users but frequently solicits comment about possible harms to these existing users. No wonder, then, that some Wall Street investors have strenuously opposed Globalstar’s multi-year attempt to get approval for its TLPS technology to provide wifi-like Internet access. Why would a hedge fund take an interest in the intricacies of Part 15 rules? Recent tech reporting is suggestive.

Bloomberg BNA reported that one intervenor who has filed comments against Globalstar’s TLPS application “runs a hedge fund [and has] said he is short-selling Globalstar’s stock, so he has been very active in the Globalstar TLPS FCC proceeding.” The New York Times similarly reports on another frequent filer in the TLPS proceeding, “a little-known activist investor [who] has declared war on the multibillion-dollar satellite communications company Globalstar, contending that it is worthless.” Existing device makers likewise may see a competitive threat from new devices that provide similar services, as Hazlett notes, and pile on in these proceedings.

Singling out a company with important business before a regulatory agency is not unheard of but the FCC only encourages financial gamesmanship by requesting that parties weigh in on interference potential for users that formally aren’t entitled to interference protection. Is this how the spectrum commons dies?

The most effective tactic to use when the FCC is likely to do something you dislike is to induce regulatory delays. The public interest groups can see much of this and their responses have been relatively muted relative to the commercial interests. I suspect many are deeply uncomfortable with what is occurring because it undermines the idea of a commons and the intent of the Part 15 rules. Nevertheless, they favor the status quo because wifi works pretty well and consumers have reliance interests. Knowing that the Part 15 rules don’t help them, they typically resort to asking for more studies about interference potential. It sounds like an innocuous request but anyone following telecom policy knows that “more study” from the FCC is the kiss of death because it simply gives time for opponents to agitate for reinforcements (like powerful members of Congress) and to scare off investment.

Congress, by the way, foresaw this risk–pressure groups compelling the FCC to kill entrants with delay–and in 1983 added the little-known Section 7 of the Communications Act, which requires the FCC to approve new technologies within a year. By requesting parties weigh in on interference potential and delaying indefinitely Part 15 approvals for TLPS and LTE-U (assuming they show they comply with Part 15) the FCC violates the spirit of the law. The agency has a statutory duty to companies with new technologies to make a decision quickly, but these lengthy unlicensed proceedings send a chilling message to the tech industry (so much so the IEEE asked then-Chairman Genachowski for Section 7 guidance in 2011).

The FCC knows spectrum NIMBYism is a big, developing problem. The unlicensed incumbents are agitating more and more as new technologies encroach on “their” spectrum. It should be enough for the FCC to respond that these unlicensed device makers knew the tradeoff going in–you can avoid expensive licensure and use spectrum freely but you cannot object when interfered with. Firms that want interference protection and higher QoS are free to spend millions or billions of dollars on licensed spectrum. Increasingly, however, by largely remaining silent and delaying approvals, the FCC gets bogged down in proceedings and undermines the purpose of unlicensed spectrum–encourage innovators to experiment with new wireless technologies. If the delays in approving TLPS and foreseeable delays for LTE-U are any indication, the FCC is quietly slipping towards de facto beauty contests, the infamous practice of picking technology winners and losers.

  • Steve_Crowley

    The visibility and forthrightness of investors in the TLPS docket is noteworthy but I don’t understand the concern with them. Some are long, some are short. Some make good technical points not made elsewhere in the proceeding. I don’t see why the FCC should not tolerate it, nor what the FCC could do if it didn’t.

  • bskorup

    I modified the language about the FCC “tolerating” it. I suppose it’s simply part of the game, but it can be and should be mitigated. Why the FCC shouldn’t encourage it is because Congress has given the agency a general mandate to move quickly on new technologies. Considering how quickly the tech and communications industries move, this bias for action seems reasonable and welfare enhancing. Investment dries up quickly when delays mount. The strategy of opposition groups for decades has been to slow FCC proceedings down in order to organize an opposition coalition or extract concessions. By taking seriously this statutory mandate, the FCC can limit what I (and Congress) consider to be pretty damaging delays.

Previous post:

Next post: