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The End of Spectrum Scarcity

New technologies and regulatory reform will bring a bandwidth bonanza

11 min read

Radio spectrum may be one of the most tightly regulated resources of all time. From cellphones to police scanners, from TV sets to garage-door openers, virtually every wireless device depends on access to the radio frequency wireless spectrum. But access to spectrum has been chronically limited ever since RF transmissions were first regulated in the early 20th century. Now that's all about to change. New technologies that use spectrum more efficiently and more cooperatively, unleashed by regulatory reforms, may soon overcome the spectrum shortage.

Since the 1920s, regulators have assumed that new transmitters will interfere with other uses of the radio spectrum, leading to the "doctrine of spectrum scarcity." As a result, every wireless system has required an exclusive license from the government. With virtually all usable radio frequencies already licensed to commercial operators and government entities, the upshot has been, in the words of former U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair William Kennard, a "spectrum drought." We've become accustomed to seeing every new commercial service, from satellite broadcasting to wireless local-area networks, compete for licenses with numerous existing users, including the government--all of which guard their spectrum jealously. Cellular phone service, for example, was demonstrated in the lab in 1949 but not deployed until the 1980s, largely because of licensing delays.

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How the FCC Settles Radio-Spectrum Turf Wars

Remember the 5G-airport controversy? Here’s how such disputes play out

11 min read
This photo shows a man in the basket of a cherry picker working on an antenna as an airliner passes overhead.

The airline and cellular-phone industries have been at loggerheads over the possibility that 5G transmissions from antennas such as this one, located at Los Angeles International Airport, could interfere with the radar altimeters used in aircraft.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

You’ve no doubt seen the scary headlines: Will 5G Cause Planes to Crash? They appeared late last year, after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration warned that new 5G services from AT&T and Verizon might interfere with the radar altimeters that airplane pilots rely on to land safely. Not true, said AT&T and Verizon, with the backing of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which had authorized 5G. The altimeters are safe, they maintained. Air travelers didn’t know what to believe.

Another recent FCC decision had also created a controversy about public safety: okaying Wi-Fi devices in a 6-gigahertz frequency band long used by point-to-point microwave systems to carry safety-critical data. The microwave operators predicted that the Wi-Fi devices would disrupt their systems; the Wi-Fi interests insisted they would not. (As an attorney, I represented a microwave-industry group in the ensuing legal dispute.)

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