PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Academics, activists, and regulators at a conference here on Saturday debated the future of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's allocation of radio spectrum, with some arguing that spectrum shouldn't even be the issue in most cases.
Radio spectrum is the range of different frequencies that transmitters can use to send audio, video, or data to receiving devices. Currently the FCC puts particular frequencies in the hands of TV and radio stations, mobile phone carriers, government agencies, and other entities so different transmissions won't interfere with each other.
Speakers at a two-day conference at Stanford University entitled "Spectrum Policy: Property or Commons?" looked beyond what FCC Senior Economist Evan Kwerel called the current "crazy quilt" of spectrum use toward a more efficient and effective system.
Some participants argued that the right to currently unused spectrum should be sold, while others said private ownership would lock in spectrum that could be better used with emerging technologies. They said most spectrum should be treated like a public street, open to anyone.
Both sides generally agreed there should be a combination of the two approaches and that more study will be needed to determine the best mix.
The question of what to do with unused and underutilized frequencies is becoming more important as more communication becomes wireless, participants agreed.
The FCC already has raised the idea of a large auction of both assigned and unassigned spectrum by the agency and by entities that control some spectrum now. The FCC's Kwerel said that process could restructure 438MHz of valuable spectrum within as little as two years, reducing shortages and waste.
Technology makes it imperative that many frequencies be set aside as a "commons" for anyone to use, other participants said. Recent advances in radio technology mean that, unlike in the 1950s, using different frequencies isn't the only way for radio receivers to distinguish among signals. For example, there are now "smart" antennae that can dynamically select a particular direction in which to transmit signals, and radios now can be built to support a wider range of frequencies.
"Software radios," which duplicate the functions of a radio on a computer, can switch on the fly among different systems and can be upgraded over time, according to David Reed, a visiting scientist at The Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In the commons approach, new uses of spectrum would be financially supported by end-users buying devices that work with that spectrum, rather than by carriers investing in an infrastructure and then selling a service on it.
Some proponents of the commons approach pointed to the success of IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN technology, which is proliferating in what had been called "junk" spectrum in the 2.4GHz range. That kind of unlicensed spectrum can provide a safe space for startups that can't afford spectrum to start developing a new technology, they said. Selling unused spectrum today would lock it away and prevent innovative new technologies we can't even imagine yet, they argued.
One example is "wideband" technologies that can achieve high capacity by taking advantage of a wide range of frequencies across a spectrum.