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Ofcom Chief on Spectrum in an Age of Innovation


Ofcom is the FCC’s counterpart in the UK with roughly parallel jurisdiction. Yesterday, Ed Richards, Chief Executive of Ofcom gave an interesting talk with the title “Spectrum in an age of innovation”. Here are some interesting statements from it. He starts with

I’m going to begin with a quote, and I’d like to see if you can place it:

“Wireless communication is plagued by a shortage of space for new services. As new regions of the radio spectrum have been opened to practical operation, commerce and industry have found more than enough uses to crowd them.”
Any guesses?

It is fact a direct quote from a report of the United States Joint Technical Advisory Committee of 1952.

So we see that spectrum shortages are not a new issue although the FCC of 1952 might have been better structured to deal with them than today’s FCC.

I want to suggest today that the rapidly increasing rate of change in spectrum use – the dynamism in innovation, technology and in market demand ­– has injected a new urgency into the need to manage spectrum effectively.I’ll argue that, while in general we need greater use of market mechanisms to produce more efficient use, we also need to be both strategic and sometimes straightforwardly pragmatic in our approach.

I was impressed with he parallel treatment of “innovation, technology and in market demand” as well as the point that economics is important, but pragmatism is also key.

The way that spectrum has been allocated and assigned reflected the view that the overall range of use could be relatively easily foreseen and was likely to be fairly settled, with new uses eased in and conflicts managed away over many decades.

Yes, the central planning era of spectrum has left a large impact. Remember that eh Soviet Union was also big into central planning. The fall of that government was not due to a modern day Thomas Jefferson and a band of revolutionaries, rather it was due to total economic failure in a planned economy even it it had the resources of a large nation!

But public spectrum holdings were until recently largely exempt from any such (economic) pressures, and that imbalance – where one sector faces increasingly clear economic incentives and the other does not – means that the balance between public and private holdings is likely to be far short of optimal. Even with an increasing and very welcome focus from the UK government in addressing this, the incentives for public bodies, agencies and government departments to rationalise their spectrum holdings remain variable

While the US focuses on more spectrum for public safety, this blunt talk admits the fact that the public sector in the UK probably has too much spectrum and is a statement that we are unlikely to hear from the FCC Chairman or NTIA Administrator.

It has been very disappointing to witness the extent to which the incumbent mobile operators have chosen to entangle ... (realignment of mobiles bands) in litigation or threats of litigation.We recognise, of course, the need for companies to defend their commercial interests and to have recourse to the law in order to do so.

If a regulator or any other public authority makes a decision that is either procedurally or substantively flawed, the right of appeal is there to ensure good decisions replace bad ones.But when litigation becomes essentially strategic rather than based on objective grounds, and when it has the effect of holding back innovation and hampering growth, it is legitimate to ask whether the overall legislative framework fully supports the public interest in this increasingly vital area.

A democracy with the rule of law allows litigation to review regulatory decisions. But sometimes this also has an adverse impact on innovation.

The need for change also extends to those who use spectrum adjacent to the new services. In the (U.K.) case of 800MHz that includes Digital Terrestrial Television. For 2.6GHz, it is air traffic control radars. In the past, the response to the huge planning and mitigation issues that arise from this might have simply prompted the conclusion that it was all too hard to fix.

We no longer have that luxury. It would not be in consumers’ interests or in the interests of the wider economy. And it would not reflect the new realities of a world in which even very important and long established spectrum users may have to adapt to the arrival of new and different neighbours.

Is the “public interest” always absolute protection of incumbents? A thought one rarely hears in Washington from public officials.

Finally, Mr. Richards ends with

In the past, spectrum was assigned to users in the expectation that it would be effectively held in perpetuity. This has led consumers to a commensurate expectation about the lifecycle of their equipment. Now, in this new phase, more frequent change may well be necessary to promote more efficient outcomes for everyone.

In spectrum matters, straightforward long range planning will be replaced by adjustment and adaptation to the dynamism of technology and markets, combined with clear strategic coordination and pragmatism in delivery. As we look ahead, these will be the defining characteristics of successful spectrum management.

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