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FCC becoming a leader in unintended consequences

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Recent regulatory battles highlight the downside of hurried spectrum refarming, meaning the rush to enable cutting-edge wireless broadband services can cause interference issues if done shortsightedly, negatively impacting not only existing services but sometimes even the new ones.

On Feb. 20, the FCC initiated a rulemaking proceeding aimed at opening up an additional 195 MHz in the 5 GHz band, with the use of spectrum-sharing technologies being eyed as one way to make the spectrum available to private as well as federal entities.

But the FCC's push to expand 5 GHz availability for Wi-Fi use could have the unintended consequence of derailing new connected car technologies designed to prevent accidents. That's because part of the 5 GHz band being proposed for Wi-Fi use was designated about nine years ago for use by vehicle-safety applications, into which large automakers, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and others have invested hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA), along with major automakers, safety advocates and transportation officials from across the country, last week urged the FCC to conduct due diligence by ensuring that any timelines contained in a proposed rulemaking for the 5 GHz band accommodate an ongoing analysis by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is looking into the feasibility of spectrum sharing. ITSA also asked that the FCC's rulemaking timelines not precede an expected DOT decision regarding implementation of a connected vehicle network, which supporters say could reduce the 6 million crashes and more than 30,000 deaths occurring annually on U.S. roads.

A Bloomberg article quoted Gregory Rohde, former NTIA chief, who likened the brewing 5 GHz debate to the LightSquared fiasco, which he said occurred because "the the FCC got out ahead of itself." In that situation, the FCC's original approval of LightSquared's plan to build a terrestrial LTE network using satellite frequencies failed to account for potential interference to global-positioning-system navigation gear, causing the commission to eventually rescind the conditional waiver it had issued to LightSquared.

The FCC's mad dash to make 700 MHz digital-dividend spectrum available for mobile broadband has come back to haunt it as well, with lawsuits and regulatory debates over interoperability between band classes being only one of the many problems that have haunted this spectrum repurposing effort. As regular FierceWireless contributor Roger Enter recently noted in a column, "The combination of clean spectrum with highly encumbered spectrum that TV stations still use to broadcast, spectrum that comes with net neutrality and private-public partnership rules attached, and broadcast-only spectrum has been a disaster."

Though battles over spectrum are to be expected, especially when repurposing results in new groups of "haves and have nots," recent experiences shows that the FCC would be wise to engage in considerable consultation and deep reflection as it moves to repurpose any further spectrum for wireless broadband services. Taking the time to do things right rarely serves the need for immediate gratification, but it can certainly help prevent problems in the long-term.--Tammy

P.S. Do you think the FCC is moving to quickly to repurpose spectrum without considering all the ramifications of its actions? Or is the commission's pace just right? Let us know by voting in the poll on our home page.