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Republican Congressmen Greg Walden (left) and Fred Upton discussion their vision of a new Communications Act (Click image to enlarge.)

Communications Act Rewrite Could Adversely Affect GPS Community

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July 16, 2014
Inside GNSS, July/August 2014

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Two powerful lawmakers are weighing rewriting the rules for the way frequencies are allocated as part of an overhaul of the nation’s telecommunications laws. The effort, which is likely to see legislation drafted next year, is considering options such as flexible licensing and receiver standards that could directly affect the GPS community.

“It's been quite some time since there's been any type of update or a number of hearings on reviewing the Communications Act,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Michigan, in a taped announcement in December 2013. “We’re prepared in essence to talk about a launch of a number of hearings that we will have next year (and) a number of white papers examining a whole number of different issues. Our goal, in fact, will be to use these hearings throughout the course of the next year to begin to actually launch an update beginning in 2015.”

Upton, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, made the announcement with Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, the chairman of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee. The two committees oversee the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and have primary authority over spectrum issues in the House.

Since their announcement, the two congressmen have held an FCC oversight hearing, another hearing in January on updating the Communications Act of 1934, and issued three white papers for comment in a lead-up to drafting legislation. The papers and comments can be found at the Energy and Commerce Committee’s website.

One of the points they underscored in the policy papers is how much technology has changed since the communications law was written and even since its most recent major update.

“The last update was some 18 years ago of the Communications Act,” said Walden in December. A great deal of innovation has taken place since then, he pointed out, with new companies emerging and changes in the legal environment. “If you think about it, you’re being regulated now by an agency that was created basically at the time of the Great Depression.”

Any update potentially spans a very wide set of issues. Telephone companies now compete with cable firms who are angling for the same business as satellite operators — and the regulations they work under don’t always make sense. Should telecommunication companies be regulated differently than information companies? What about net neutrality and ownership limits on television stations?

Spectrum Allocation White Paper
The issue of spectrum allocation, and the need for more frequencies for commercial use, seems to be near the top of the work list — deserving of a white paper of its own. The paper asks for feedback on a number of questions including whether the FCC should be allowed to take the potential revenue from spectrum auctions into account when making allocation decision, something that would likely put additional pressure on the highly desirable L-band, where the GPS frequencies are located.

It also asks about shifting to “flexible use” licenses which, the paper said, would  “permit licensees to use their spectrum for any service, including wireless, broadcast, or satellite services,” as opposed to the current system of designating what uses can be made of specific frequencies.

The GPS Innovation Alliance noted in its submitted comments that “flexible use” is described in another white paper by the FCC Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) as permitting “uses up to and including high power mobile network downlinks.”

“While such a regime provides a great measure of freedom to the licensee who acquires flexible use spectrum,” the Alliance wrote, “this flexibility comes at a cost to any adjacent spectrum holder, who will be expected to be able to accommodate the full range of permitted operations, up to and including very high powered operations. If the adjacent band use is not immediately compatible with high powered use, the TAC White Paper appears to suggest that adjacent spectrum holders will be forced to accommodate the use over time.”

The TAC assumed in its white paper, “without providing technical evidence,” said the Alliance, “that with the right amount of time and some unknown level of investment in new technology or alternative product design, any spectrum use should be able to accommodate high-powered, cellular-like operations in directly adjacent spectrum. This assumption has not been thoroughly tested and validated, and based upon past instances involving significant interference between dissimilar uses in close spectral proximity, may be unfounded.”

The Alliance suggested a “zoning” and re-farming approach, which groups similar types of services together. This method could reduce the need for spectrum by reducing the need for the guard bands, or buffer zones between users, they suggested.

Receiver Standards & Down-Grading NTIA Role
The lawmakers also asked about the desirability of setting standards that receivers would have to meet as a way to limit interference and expand the number of potential users.

Standards could stifle innovation wrote the Alliance and, in the case of GPS, where the receivers can be baseball sized or tiny enough to fit in a watch, engineering a solution for all the receivers may be impractical.

One issue the committee has raised, but the Alliance did not address, was changing the role of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). CTIA, the association for the wireless industry suggested that the FCC be put completely in charge of spectrum decisions.

“CTIA recommends Congress consider changing NTIA’s role so that, consistent with national security concerns, spectrum use decisions are all made by the FCC,” the association wrote in its comments. The NTIA would still play a crucial function as an “advisor” to federal agencies, CTIA suggested, and would be the organization that would request spectrum from the FCC for federal users.

Changing the role of the NTIA could leave the GPS community with one less empowered potential advocate at the table. The organization played a key role in debate over LightSquared and in the decision not to go forward despite strong support for the project in the White House and then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Given the momentum behind the project at the time, it is not clear what would have happened if the FCC had been able to proceed without the moderating effect of having to work with another agency that was able to organize additional, independent technical experts.

Politics versus Technology
“Political idealism is what got us into this mess in the first place, rather than taking a hardnosed engineering view,” said Tim Farrar of TMF Associates, a consulting firm that closely follows mobile communications industry.

Politics of a different sort are likely to add momentum to the lawmakers’update effort.

Upton assumed the committee chairmanship in 2011 which means, given the current six-year term-limit rules for House Republicans, he will have to give up his committee leadership by sometime in 2017. Walden does not appear to be in the best position to assume the chair — at least four other committee members have more seniority. Although the next chairman could be supportive, Upton and Walden will likely want to get as much done as possible before the handover.

And Walden has his own reasons to be proactive. He is not only the subcommittee chairman; he chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), a group dedicated to electing Republicans to the U.S. House. As a member of the Republican leadership he has input into the House’s agenda and can be an advocate for overhauling the law. As the head of the NRCC he will also be paying attention to fundraising and political messaging. More commercial spectrum is broadly touted as a way to generate jobs — and taking action to support job growth is only smart during this election year and the next.

Also smart is tackling issues bound to capture the attention — and resources — of well-heeled industries. According to the watchdog group MapLight, which monitors money in politics, the telephone utilities made more than $7.3 million in campaign contributions during 2012 and 2013 while the cellular systems and equipment firms dropped in more than $2 million and the cable and satellite TV production and distribution wrote checks worth more than $7.7 million. According to Oregonlive.com and MapLight, Walden received more than $109,000 from the cable companies, the highest amount in Congress from that group for the two-year period.

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