A Look Back at the FutureThursday, September 18, 2008
As many of you know, the Federal Communications Commission will take up the issue of the fate of the 700-MHz public/private network again at its meeting on September 25, 2008. There will most likely be a new Report and Order, then new comments, then action, but probably not until after the election. The same is true for the AWS-2/3 spectrum auction, there probably won't be any action until after the election. What this really means is until at least several months after the new President is sworn into office and has decided who will be running things at the FCC.
Meanwhile, as I have been preparing for several intellectual property court cases in which I am acting as an expert witness, and also prompted by the upcoming 25th anniversary of the first cell phone system in the United States, I have been reading a number of my old newsletters and finding some insightful, humorous and outright dead wrong predictions. One of the articles I found was a letter to then Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, the Honorable Larry Pressler, which I have decided to publish in its entirety below.
I scanned the article in and it is presented below in its entirety, faulty assumptions and all! As you are probably aware, nothing ever came of this effort in the Senate, and there have been several other attempts at a grand plan for wireless and the spectrum, none of which have progressed very far. It is probably a good thing, as you can tell from this article/letter. I had not even considered something that is today called wireless broadband, nor the inclusion of the wireless Internet.
Wireless LANs were becoming available, but with no established fixed standards and most of the activity in the United States was in the 900-MHz band, and paging was at its prime, approaching the 50-million-customer mark. ARDIS, RAM and CDPD were up and running and wireless data speeds were an incredible 10-12 Kbps. The first RIM BlackBerry had not made its appearance, and RadioMail, with its separate email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) was still the best way to receive email while on the road.
Another article in the same issue of the newsletter was about AT&T's introduction of the PocketNet Phone, the first phone based on Unwired Planet's WAP browser. The "browser" was capable of displaying four lines of twenty characters each, yet the hype surrounding the introduction of this phone made it sound as though the entire Internet was now at your fingertips using the AT&T CDPD network and this phone. I have repeated my comments at the end of the PocketNet article every few years for a different product or service:
"AT&T appears to be initiating a major push into wireless Internet activity. With the PocketNet Phone, it has a viable tool. If it keeps its marketing hype in check, AT&T should find an audience of users who will take to these phones and find them of value. However, if AT&T promises too much to too many, this new push will result in more unmet user expectations and yet another step backwards for wireless data. We hope for the good of all concerned (including the other wireless network providers), that AT&T will use this exciting new technology to grow its business and expand the overall perceived usefulness of wireless data."
Here are some of the entries from my Plus and Minus column in the same issue:
Things have changed, but perhaps not that much, I hope you enjoy reading the article below, I guess I will have to update it, just a little, and send it to the new FCC Chairman, whomever that turns out to be!
by Andrew M. Seybold
An Open Letter to Senator Larry Pressler, Chairman, Senate Commerce Committee
Dear Senator Pressler:
I have read with interest a synopsis of the "Grand Spectrum Bill" draft which you released last month. I would like to take this opportunity to offer comments on this draft as well as to provide additional information for your consideration.
Both the federal government and the vendor community seem to be fully immersed in a "feeding frenzy" over the amount of spectrum that should be made available for public access versus that which is reserved for pointto-multipoint dispatch types of operation.
In much of what I have read, it appears that the push is to limit the amount of spectrum that will be available for historical dispatch functions and open more of the spectrum for public use. It also appears that this momentum is based primarily upon financial considerations and does not take into account the need for coordinated and synergistic communications systems for use by both the private and public sector.
If sweeping changes are to be made to the current spectrum allocations, I respectfully request that you and your committee consider the following points:
Now would be the time to discuss a nationwide public safety communications plan. As you know, today's federal, state, and local government agencies use small bands of channels scattered along the spectrum from 30 MHz to 800 MHz. Many agencies maintain multiple radios in their vehicles in order to communicate with their neighboring agencies. But they still do not have the communications flexibility needed in times of local and national disasters.
The FCC is presently considering "refarming" many of these channels and narrowing their bandwidth to accommodate more channels in the same amount of spectrum. Unfortunately, when channel bandwidth is narrowed, the ability to incorporate data is diminished. One of the best ways to make better use of existing spectrum is to combine data with voice. By eliminating some of the voice traffic and replacing it with data transmission, the effective use of these channels is increased many fold.
Given the broad reach of your bill, this would be a perfect opportunity to plan ahead for a federal/state/local communications system that would provide for nationwide allocation of contiguous spectrum. This spectrum could then be assigned in such a way that all public safety agencies could use channels as needed. Not only would multiple agencies be able to communicate when there was a need, they could use
My major concern with this proposed Grand Spectrum Bill is that it does not appear to provide any protection for communications consumers. It seems as though there is a consensus within the government that providing spectrum to vendors that are willing to pay for it, and permitting them to decide how to use it and what services to offer, does not provide for assurances to communications users that they will have services available to them in a cost-effective, dependable, and timely fashion.
The basic question that has not been addressed is exactly how much of this limited resource will be allocated for end-user direct access (wireless voice, data, etc.) and how much will remain for use by the general public for more traditional forms of wireless communications (dispatch, for example). Though it may appear that communications consumers have an insatiable appetite for wireless technology, given the present lack of a nationwide voice service, the multiplicity of new digital technologies coming online, and the high cost of system build-out, it is my belief that this nation will experience an over abundance of wireless service providers over the next five or so years with the spectrum that has already been allocated.
There are those who will argue that as demand for wireless services continues to grow, the need for additional bandwidth will increase. This may, in fact, be true. However, this premise is, as yet, unproved and untested. Between now and the end of the decade, as new systems begin to come online and we learn from the successes and failures of PCS, NBPCS, and cellular service providers, we will be in a position to change our course of action regarding the spectrum if necessary. If usage is predetermined today, there will be little if any opportunity to make course corrections as we learn more about what communications consumers need, want, and will pay for.
One area of available spectrum that should be considered for reallocation-perhaps for federal, state, and local government public safety agencies-is currently allocated for the top twenty UHF-TV channels. This 120 MHz of spectrum could be easily re-allocated to provide contiguous spectrum for public safety agencies. Given today's technologies, 120 MHz of spectrum could provide upward of 6,000 channels which could then be divided into federal, nationwide, regionwide, statewide, countywide, and local systems. As a result of new digital technologies, these channels could be grouped and access to them could be limited by the agencies involved. In the event of disasters, responding agencies could remotely control access to these channels based on need.
Obviously, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) would not agree that such use of "their" spectrum would be of benefit. But
I believe that it is vital for the government to ensure that the mistakes of the past in regard to spectrum usage are not repeated. Now is the time to make certain that all of those who have a need for this limited resource are provided for in the equation. For example, the proponents of the Low Earth Orbiting Satellite (LEOS) systems are engaged in an effort to reclaim some of the spectrum that is currently being used by the amateur radio community. This small slice of spectrum is important to amateur radio, and amateur radio is important to the United States. Over the years, "hams" have contributed to new technology advances and have provided needed communications in times of local, regional, and national disasters.
Many of the technology advances that are being deployed today began as experiments on the ham channels. To deny this group of dedicated experimenters and public-minded citizen's access to bands which are currently in heavy use would be a disservice to every citizen of this nation.
The advance of personal wireless communications technologies will provide new jobs, new opportunities, and new challenges. However, there is the danger that there will be so many services, using so many different technologies, that such technologies will cost consumers too much.
The key to these issues is to devise a spectrum management plan that will permit public sector competition but will also safeguard consumers. It is a delicate balance and one which, I believe, needs to be addressed based upon the net effect these decisions will have on those who will use this spectrum and those who will pay the service providers for the privilege to do so.
Even today, the challenges facing the new PCS license holders are immense. Some may not make money for a decade or more, some will sell out to others with larger bank rolls, and others will simply go out of business, stranding customers who, in good faith, bought and paid for the services being offered.
I urge you to move forward slowly. There is nothing wrong with working toward your communications goals in steps, making course corrections along the way. There is no one person or group that has all of the answers. Technology is advancing rapidly. However, end users have not been exposed to much of it at this point. It is not possible for anyone to know exactly what they will embrace or reject.
There should not be a rush to finalize the "ultimate" allocation of the spectrum today, nor should raising large amounts of money for the government be the driving force. Compromise and caution should be the prevailing watch words as you move forward. Good luck!
It's twelve years later and I am not sure that much has changed. We have high-speed wireless broadband but no nationwide public safety communications system, we have ten million pagers instead of fifty million, we have 86% cellular penetration not 12%, and we have full (or almost) Internet browsing on some of our wireless devices. RIM and the BlackBerry has changed the wireless email world forever, and data income is now being counted in a network operator's ARPU.
Spectrum is still a resource we need to cherish and use to the best of our ability, access to wireless is nearly pervasive, we can make calls, send text and pictures, and listen to music and watch videos and TV on our mobile devices. Meanwhile, the local police still cannot talk to the feds, and the feds cannot talk to the military.
We have advanced four or five generations since I wrote this article, yet in some areas we have made very little progress. If 9/11 and Katrina don't push us to solve the issues, what will it take? Every time we plunk down $100 for a phone that can talk around the world we should remember that first responders are plunking down $5,000 to talk within a city or a county. These are not new problems, yet they remain unresolved. I don't want to pull this Commentary out in another twelve years and publish it yet again.
Andrew M. Seybold