US Navy Spectrum Video

Saturday, 3 May 2008

The Office of the Chief Information Officer of the US Navy has produced an introductory video on spectrum-dependent systems and spectrum policy.  It’s provides very basic information, but is well done.  Folks may want to share it with people new to this topic.  The URL is

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The UK Government is really leaning forward on introducing markets to spectrum.  The goal of a current initiative is “releasing the maximum amount of spectrum to the market and to increase the opportunities for the development of innovative new services”  In particular, the Ministry of Defense (MOD), which currently manages a third of the UK radio frequency (RF) spectrum, now must pay for the use of that resource.  The Treasury has set the initial prices administratively — the costs will rise from £55 million this year to £500M in 2011.  Thereafter, MOD would have to procure spectrum on the market if it required more for its new systems. 


I am in favor of the approach.  It’s good public policy, forcing the political system to realize the opportunity cost of the Government’s actions.  Many military analysts in the US are against market reforms, including auctions.  Why wouldn’t they be – they are losing something they previously had for free.  I have no doubt it will constrain military capability in the medium term.  Yet if bandwidth intensive spectrum-dependent systems are critical to fighting future wars, the political system needs to face that head on and make hard choices. 


I expect that one outcome of the high cost of spectrum in rich, densely populated areas will be to shift military training to poorer, less populated areas.  Think third world deserts and jungles. 


Any other opinions out there?

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Online markets for spectrum

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

I just learned about a new Florida-based company called Spectrum Bridgethat is creating an online market for spectrum.  Business Week reports that it could be a “game-changer for the wireless industry.”  Spectrum Bridge’s initial focus is organizations with campus-like physical infrastructure that want to deploy their own wireless network, but would get better performance and lower costs by using WiMAX in dedicated spectrum versus Wi-Fi in ISM bands.  I hope they get some traction.  Land Mobile Radio bands seem like a logical next step — some organizations sit on spectrum while their spectral neighbors are eager for more to meet growing demands.   Regulatory reform might be required to expand the markets, in particular to break down walls between Federal, other government, and business/industrial users. 

How successful do you think Spectrum Bridge will be?  What kind of hurdles do they face?  How can they overcome those hurdles?

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Where is Barack Obama on the spectrum?

Saturday, 16 February 2008

I am simultaneously referring to both the political spectrum and the electromagnetic spectrum.  What are the implications of Obama’s left-leaning policy entrepreneurship for next generation radio technology?


There are lot of good things to say about Obama.   His campaign literature is more extensive than any other leading candidate on the use of technology to increase political participation and improve society.  In particular, it states: “Obama will demand a review of existing uses of our wireless spectrum. He will create incentives for smarter, more efficient and more imaginative use of government spectrum.”  That kind of energy and focus may attract the thought leadership that the Federal government needs to foster the long term potential of the spectrum for humanity.


I also like Obama’s position on intellectual property.   He wants to reform the patent system and do more to protect intellectual property in foreign markets.  There is a clear role for government in this space.  A strong intellectual property rights regime will help next generation radio technology in addition to nearly all other technical fields.


However, the devil is in the details.  Much of Obama’s “new” thinking is actually old thinking.  For example, Obama wants to “ensure that we have enough spectrum for police, ambulances and other public safety purposes.”  This seems to perpetuate the idea that public safety spectrum must be stovepiped – i.e., separated from other users of the spectrum.  Really fresh thinking would eliminate spectrum allocations by user class.  It would focus on standardizing quality of service mechanisms that could be adopted for commercial networks in ways that would meet public safety requirements.  Then public safety could ride the wave of innovation and cost reduction that will come to the commercial networks through competition.  Admittedly, McCain is not much better on this point.


Obama wants to establish a multi-year plan with a date certain to change the Universal Service Fund (USF) program from one that supports voice communications to one that supports affordable broadband, with a specific focus on reaching previously un-served communities.  A more daring position would be to call for the elimination of USF, so phone users could pay less in phone taxes.   Universal service is socialism.  It wasn’t a good idea for wired voice telephony and it won’t be good for Internet broadband.  Good communications technology can find its way into American homes without the Government’s help.  For instance, cable television has higher penetration in lower income neighborhoods that landline phones despite decades of USF subsidies for the later. 

Some of Obama’s ideas are very bureaucratic.  He wants to appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO).  The Government already has statutory requirements for agency Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and a CIO Council. The CTO office will just be a boon for contractors.  It’s a relatively minor point in the big scheme but it still highlights a worrisome propensity for bigger government.


My verdict on Obama is not complete.  He still has an opportunity to impress me, but McCain still leads in my book.  Let’s watch as events unfold.


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This entry is the first of several I plan on the 2008 US Presidential election.  I am going to analyze the candidates with respect to a single issue: Would his or her election facilitate the success of spectrum-related innovation, both respect to (1) technical advances in next generation radio technology and (2) regulatory reform that will enable new and efficient uses of spectrum?   I don’t recommend that anyone actually cast their ballot on this issue.  Indeed, even those in the industry should take a broader view, considering the candidates stance on the war in Iraq, the economy, health care, and many other concerns.  Nevertheless, someone has to inform the public with respect to spectrum policy and this election, so I will try fill the void as best I can.

With respect to spectrum-related innovation, John McCain is the current front runner.   He is the only candidate that both (1) appreciates the importance of the wireless communications technology to improving our society, and (2) can resist the temptation to meddle in its development.  His leading opponents in the Democratic Party also do fairly well on the first criterion, but fall rather short on the second one.

Former US FCC Chairman Michael Powell backs McCain.  Powell may be the most innovative FCC Chairman in the history of the Commission.   In his endorsement statement, Powell says that “Senator McCain has a deep and principled understanding of how the digital revolution is transforming the social and economic landscape.”   

McCain admits weakness in technology and economic policy, but his Administration is very unlikely to be duped in to promulgating intrusive, unnecessary, and counterproductive telecommunications regulation.  While appointments at FCC and NTIA are unknown, Former Senator Phil Gramm will likely be McCain’s first Treasury Secretary.  Also look for Theodore Olsen as Attorney General or on the Supreme Court.  Say what you will about these men on social issues, but they are rock solid behind free markets and limited government – the kind of environment we need to see revolutionary innovation humanity’s use of the spectrum. 

McCain’s campaign web site hints at his hands off approach with respect to telecommunications issues.  His proposed pro-innovation tax cuts include banning Internet taxes and new cell phone taxes.  He also wants to make permanent the R&D tax credit, but both Clinton and Obama also advocate extensions.

Sen John McCain (R-AZ) is a longtime member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees spectrum, telecommunications, and Internet policy.  As IDG News Service reports, this arguably makes him the most experienced of the major candidates on technology issues.  While nothing terribly profound has come out of Commerce Committee during his presence, it has at least done no discernable harm during a period of revolutionary advances in communications technology (e.g., the Internet, commercial wireless explosion, etc.). 

In his role on the Commerce Committee, McCain had a hands-on role in setting aside spectrum for public safety and clearly obtained some level of mastery of a complex issue.   Yet despite my support here, I still have mixed feeling about his performance on this issue.  On the one hand, he correctly chastised the stodgy broadcast television industry for blocking change.  On the other hand, he still stood by the balkanization of the spectrum between commercial and public uses.  We now see the consequences of that position — the D block reserved for public safety will not meet the FCC reserve price in the recent spectrum auction, which essentially makes the policy a failure.  A much better route would have been to promote public safety use of commercial spectrum accompanied by criticality driven spectrum access protocols that would ensure first responders would have network communication during major emergencies.

In later entries to the blog, I hope to rebut some of the criticisms that John McCain “doesn’t know economics” and that he views technology issues as less important.  I also will explore Clinton and Obama’s positioning in this space.  In particular, Obama has taken some fairly detailed positions that deserve further study.

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Both the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced the creation of a Spectrum Sharing Innovation Test-Bed (Test-Bed).  The FCC test bed will provide up to 10 MHz within the 470-512 MHz frequency band, which contains Television Broadcast Systems (TV channels 14-20) and Land Mobile Radio Systems.  The NTIA test bed offers the 410-420 MHz frequency range.


On the whole, this is very good news.  The creation of the test bed shows that the US Government is getting behind innovation in wireless communications, particularly with respect to dynamic spectrum access.  It also allows for tests of non-Federal Government applications in Federal Government spectrum.   That’s a huge step forward in the eventual end of the Balkanization of the spectrum between Federal and non-Federal users.


Yet there are some troubling aspects to the announcement.  First, NTIA is giving applicants less than a month to announce their intent to participate.  Why such a short time frame?  Many organizations may only learn about the offer after the deadline.  Either the NTIA doesn’t want a large body of experiments or it has already wired the opportunity for selected technologies.  When the list of those submitting intent to participate is made pubic, we’ll get more clues as to what’s going on.


The NTIA procedure involves three phases.  The first two of these phases involved testing at the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences (ITS)

for “characterization measurements” and then, the second phase, dynamic spectrum access (DSA) capabilities.  Only after successful completion of the first two phases does an applicant get the opportunity to participate in the test bed.  This seems a bit burdensome.  If it is true test bed, give people easier access to the band.  With too many hurdles, innovation is slowed to a crawl.  Perhaps that’s what some factions want.

Another concern I have with the test bed is its artificiality.  I don’t think folks can really determine the effectiveness of DSA technology until is allowed to work with real world systems.  Of course, you have to crawl before you can run. 

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The latest big news in the telecommunications industry is that Motorola is considering a breakup, including a spin off of its mobile handset business that comprises approximately half of its revenue.  This has reported widely, including the Wall Street Journal,, and

Some issues covered in the press include can the handset business survive without the Motorola brand and whether the companies woes are due to poor management execution or its sprawling conglomerate structure.  A smaller, but important, issue is what the breakup could mean for cognitive radio (i.e., devices that sense their environment and change operating behavior accordingly, such as modifying transmission power, frequency, or air interface protocol).

Motorola is probably the greatest benefactor of cognitive radio research and standardization efforts in commercial industry.  Its employees hold significant leadership positions and make numerous technical contributions in IEEE SCC41, IEEE DySPAN, the European End-to-End Reconfigurability Project,  and the SDR Forum.  Much of their work has involved integrating next generation “cognitive” handsets into telecommunication infrastructure that would talk the same language.  The work has spanned commercial wireless, land mobile radio, and the emerging white space appliance market.   A breakup could result in fundamental changes or perhaps even the elimination of the company’s participation in many of these efforts. 

What does this mean for those in the embryonic cognitive radio space?  On one hand, perhaps it doesn’t make much of a difference.  The research and development may continue in whatever entity gets the current activity.  Moreover, since Motorola was not particularly adept at finding synergy among its various units in any case, it may not matter if they are separated.  On the other hand, a breakup could preclude the ability of Motorola to achieve dominance over its handset competitors precisely because it would no longer have the ability to creatively introduce cognitive applications that its competitors could not match due to the limited span of their product lines.

My gut tells me Motorola’s financial problems and possible forthcoming structural changes are bad news for cognitive radio and accompanying innovations in SDR and spectrum management.

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I couldn’t wait until the end of the FCC’s auction of 700 MHz spectrum to express some of my views on the 10 MHz D block, which comes with “strings attached”, namely that it must be available to public safety agencies on demand. 

So far, the top bid for the D block is $472 million.  It hasn’t budged since round 2, with the auction just completing round 14.  The reserve price for this block is $1.3 billion.  If the reserve price is not met, the block must be re-auctioned, presumably under more favorable terms. 

Contrast this situation with the 22 MHz C block, which now has a top bid of $ 4.29 billion against a reserve price of $4.6 billion.  The C block also has strings attached – the winner must provide an “open” network, enabling any device to connect to it, although presumably one compliant to some industry standard. 

The beauty of the auction is that it enables analysts to provide a precise monetary value on the impact of the restrictions that the FCC placed on each block.  If you do the math, the politicians and accompanying bureaucracy estimated that the “hassle” to an operator of taking on the public safety restrictions versus the open network restrictions was worth $79/Hz.  That was what they were willing to accept in reduced revenue to gain additional spectrum for public safety.  The market, on the other hand, currently values that burden at $147/Hz, a little less than double the government value.  When the final bids are in, the gap is likely to be significantly higher.


Is the public getting a good deal here?  Should Joe and Judy Average accept several $billion less in the US Treasury to give public safety agencies wireless capabilities they do not have today.  We don’t have a good estimate of the value of those services, so it is difficult to say a priori.  However, the auction is sending a strong signal that operators believe coping with rules, politicians, and miscellaneous government officials makes even “beachfront” spectrum look like a bad business proposition.   Moreover, despite many skeptics, it seems possible that public safety could use the open spectrum just like anyone else.  Why stovepipe public safety broadband, especially when they already own and operate mission critical voice networks?  The auction is helping the policy community face the reality of the downside of stove-piped spectrum for public safety when bidders even avoid shared solutions.

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What’s the best way for innovators in the communications technology industry to make money?  There seem to be two basic approaches.  One is to create a proprietary solution and strive for differentiation and customer loyalty.  The other is to collaborate with others to create a standard that enables rapid growth and consumer acceptance, often as a result of declining costs through modularization and economies of scale. 

Apple’s iPhone is an example of the former.  Apple has created a tightly bundled system that gives its customers a complete multimedia experience.  IEEE 802.11 (or Wi-Fi) is an example of the later.  Wi-Fi has been a huge success, making millions for many, but is now a commodity component of larger systems.  Nonetheless, it has enabled a wide variety of higher value services that need network connectivity to perform.


So what about dynamic spectrum access and cognitive radio?  Microsoft is developing a white space appliance that presumably will be mostly proprietary.  On the other hand, Motorola is investing heavily in a number of cognitive radio standardization activities.  Which approach is best?  It will be interesting to watch

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SDR, cognitive radio, and ITU-R

Saturday, 26 January 2008

I’ve been procrastinating far too long on starting this blog, so I thought I would go ahead and start putting fingers to keyboard.  The issue of the day is how to get industry behind global regulatory reform to promote more efficient use of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Groups such as the SDR Forum and IEEE Standards Coordinating Committee 41 (SCC41) (Dynamic Spectrum Access Networks) are doing what they can, but to date, they still lack a focused commercial approach.   

In early February, Working Party 5A of the International Telecommunication Union – Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) will be holding a seminar on software defined radio (SDR).  It will also be examining questions on SDR and cognitive radio (CR).   The SDR Forum has submitted a contribution on the CR questions, but will not have any one present to discuss its document.  IEEE SCC41 has submitted an informational presentation for the seminar.  Someone will be present to deliver the SCC41 presentation, but SCC41 has not identified someone to represent its interests beyond this initial meeting.

Why is industry “feet on the ground” support for ITU-R activities related to SDR/CR seemingly so weak?   Is it because industry believes it can proceed without ITU-R action, perhaps focusing on the reform of national rules where necessary?  Is it because firms would rather pursue their agenda through means other than industry and professional associations?  Is it because these industry groups are still young and do not yet have the resources or sophistication to provide significant support?

I seek comments on what it will take to jump start a global reform agenda in this space.

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