Radio Spectrum Allocation

Podcast: Freakonomics w/Ajit Pai Ep. 406

There are a few points in this podcast I found interesting. I've had some previous thoughts in this area too. For me it ultimately it raises many more questions. Ones I cannot answer sufficiently myself.

Please feel free to reach out to me with your answers. By Email: or Twitter: @cj_pais

On the FCC's Spectrum Auction

In this podcast Pai defends the spectrum auction as a great improvement over previous systems.

I think he has a lot of valid points, but unfortunately I didn't note them down as I was listening very carefully, so I've missed most here. I apologize for this, I will try to provide a more unbiased piece next time.

I'd like to quickly address one benefit he mentioned before diving in though. It was for security, that by centralizing the systems you can build much more secure systems and reduce the attack vectors, or something to this effect. Without going too deep, I'd argue this is a downside too. You may reduce the attack vectors, but you also know exactly where to attack. We know this model doesn't work given the number of security breaches in the past few years.

I wonder if the spectrum auction is still applicable in today's rapidly changing technology environment. For me it raises the question:

Does it make sense to have a market where only parties with lots of capital can enter the market?

If I'm honest I don't particularly like this model however I do understand it. Maybe I am taking this a bit far, but it seems to me it encroaches on free speech. A very naive argument would be: Why I can speak over sound waves (20-20000Hz) freely, but I am unable to talk on other radio frequencies freely?! Seems a little strange at first sight. Let's consider why we might restrict the airwaves though. My initial thinking comes down to a few reasons, for military, for public services (GPS), for private services (LTE), for science/medical (ISM Bands), and for the general public (HAM). (I'm sure I'm missing more)

Ahhhh so there's the problem right? I don't particularly have a problem GPS, ISM, or HAM. I do not want to comment on Military, because that requires a whole other discussion. Let's consider Military usage fair and okay in the name of national security. So then it seems only private services are encroaching on my right to free speech. I am not a lawyer, but would this argument hold up in court. My guess is no.

So what's the problem?

Is this an argument that the system is unfair? I think this is a valid question and I haven't totally been able to answer that myself. But consider the following:

Could it stifle innovation?

My initial reaction is certainly yes. I work in the wireless industry and to me 5G seems like a cash grab more than anything else. Is it the architecture that would be the best for AR/VR? Personally I don't believe so. Well first off I am a big proponent of personal data. So I don't like the concept that all of my data is going to be collected by my ISP (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile) in much more detail than previously. Imagine, they will have access to exactly where I am, the people who are around me, the people I interacted with. Should a corporation have this power? This will certainly make them tons of money, but is it responsible to let this happen? I don't know. This is extremely scary to me. Perhaps worse than the government doing it. At least hopefully the government has my best interests in mind. But is that the right system either? I don't think so.

I think this kind of system should be controlled by the people.

This is foundation of how the internet was created, and I think we should continue that tradition. The argument I'd like to make is that by letting corporations buy radio spectrum, the commoners are unable to speak for themselves and make systems that benefit human society as a whole.

I'd love to dive into the details of a better wireless internet infrastructure (while still letting people make money from creating infrastructure, and not upsetting the incumbents) in this piece, but that will become too big of a topic. For now consider how the existing system doesn't easily allow the people to create a wireless infrastructure.

note: next paragraph needs more fact checking. Wish I could highlight exactly what as this is core to my argument. Regardless I believe the following to be generally true.

Say I did want to build an LTE network, how would I do this? Well I have an SDR and PC that is capable of being an LTE base station. I can theoretically do this now. What's the problem? Well the problem is that because wireless spectrum is given to the carriers I am not allowed to operate on those frequencies. Why is this a problem? Well out of consideration for power, performance, and physical reasons, phones are only designed to work on specific frequencies (called bands). The bands these phones work on almost always only match the one's the carriers own. There are a few phones that support other bands (notably CBRS spectrum, part of LTE-Unlicensed). But my phone doesn't support these bands and neither do most people's. So how could the public start building a network that lots of people can use for free or relatively cheap? It's basically impossible given the current situation, and I think this would be great. To decentralize our infrastructure.

How could we get there? From the industry point of view there is no reason for a phone to support these bands as no one is carrying data over them. The only way they will get supported is if the industry starts using them, but then this is also a conundrum, so we get the support, but now the spectrum is so congested the public can't use it?! Agh.

CBRS to the rescue?

What the hell is CBRS? CBRS is the Citizens Broadband Radio Spectrum. Wow this sound exactly like what I am talking about! I was super excited about it at first too, and the government has done some interesting things with this spectrum. Read more here. Without going into too much detail it does give access to the public to transmit on this spectrum. Note: It is relatively high in frequency, meaning it doesn't penetrate walls very well. Also citizens are the lowest tier of user. Beyond this due to how the spectrum is allocated the government has opened up a new market for private corporations. Since this spectrum is shared, everyone who wants to use it must register with a central authority. This authority will allocate where and when data can be transmitted following some rules. This is definitely a step forward not exactly what I would want, but pretty good. It could help with innovation, but ideally more spectrum across the range would be allocated this way, or opened up for exclusive public use. To encourage people to broadcast the internet to everyone.

Regardless hopefully something similar will happen at mmW frequencies. There is a lot of innovation to be done at these higher frequencies and I think this is the spectrum that could benefit the general public the most while providing some level of privacy.

Call To Action

I urge Qualcomm, Apple, and Samsung to start developing the necessary technology for phones to operate outside of bands owned by the major carriers.

Even better would be to have them provide API's to use our phones as Software Defined Radio's. Opening up such API's would lead to immense possibilities and next generation innovation.

Qualcomm, there is a lot of money in this, and Apple will beat you to it if you don't do it. This is normally what Apple does. You might want to stop the cycle before they drop you for their own solution and provide capabilities you weren't thinking of.

Apple, if you do this you will lead an entire generation of technology and enable the best AR applications while maintaining privacy.

Didn't make it into piece:

I don't believe the old architecture should go away, it is necessary, but really the government needs to be opening spectrum for people to play in. They are doing this, but the problem is the allocations are relatively smaller than the allocations private companies are paying for. You could say this is fair, but why should companies be paying at all?

Last updated