Review: Tech Refactored Ep. 12 - The Lifeblood of Satellites: Spectrum and How It's Governed

Tue, 03/23/2021

This post is a summary of Episode 12 of The Nebraska Governance & Technology Center’s (NGTC) Podcast Series, Tech Refactored. Hosts Gus Hurwitz, Director of the NGTC and Matthew Schaefer, Professor of International Trade Law and Co-Director of the University of Nebraska College of Law’s Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Program were joined by Jennifer MannerSenior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs at Echostar

Although you can’t see it, can’t touch it, and most of the time probably forget that it is there, spectrum has a profound effect on the ways that we experience the world. When we talk about spectrum, we are referring to the electromagnetic spectrum — the range of frequencies over which digital signals are commonly conveyed. Different bands of the electromagnetic spectrum have different properties — the lower bands allow for longer signal range, and better indoor building penetration. Higher bands have better capacity and lower latency. The uses of spectrum are virtually innumerable, any communication that travels through the air, from cell phone calls to signals received back from the mars rover, all travel over spectrum. 

In order to ensure that signals sent over spectrum aren’t completely undermined by interference, that is to say multiple entities aren’t sending conflicting signals over the same frequency band, it is important that regulations exist to ensure that individual uses are allocated specific frequency ranges. The consequences of frequency overlap are potentially serious — Manner mentions the case of the sinking of the Titanic as one of them, where help was slow to arrive because there was a lack of standardization of radio signals. Globally, spectrum is managed by the International Telecommunication Union, a treaty organization that exists to ensure that spectrum is managed in a logical, internationally-consistent way. 

As Hurwitz explains, the dominant commercial use of spectrum nowadays is cellular phones, and as users and the demands of 5g technology increase the need for spectrum, a consensus has emerged that some of the spectrum that has traditionally been reserved for government and satellite uses should be released to be used by consumer cellular networks and other systems. An important entity that exists in the area of spectrum allocation, and where need be, reallocation, is the Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee (CSMAC) of the Department of Commerce. The members are spectrum policy experts from different backgrounds, whether they be academics, individuals who work at think-tanks, and employees of various relevant technology companies with expertise in these areas. CSMAC is charged with making recommendations, as opposed to serving a direct regulatory function. 

Unlike in every other major country, the allocation of spectrum in the US is bifurcated in the United States; the Department of Commerce has the authority over the federal government’s spectrum uses and the FCC manages the commercial, state and local arena. The relationship between the two entities is governed by an MOU that was created about 15 years ago, back at a time when 4g was the dominant emerging wireless technology. 

One of the changes the FCC has made in recent years in order to make more spectrum available to consumers relates to a band of spectrum called CBRS. Although the band has traditionally been used by government entities, more recently the government has issued licenses to non-federal users, allowing them to use the bandwidth at issue so long as they query a government database ahead of time to ensure that their use is not conflicting with any government use of the frequency.

Major questions exist in the ways in which spectrum is going to be allocated in the near future, especially in light of the additional demands for frequency that are created by 5g technology, and the need to bring expanded broadband access to areas that currently lack it. In terms of what signs we have regarding what direction the Biden administration might take in addressing some of these questions, Manner noted that, given that we still are in the administration’s early days, several key positions with regard to spectrum remain unfilled. She is optimistic, however, that the Biden administration has expressed an interest in addressing digital divide issues, which refers to a variety of barriers, primarily technical, that limit the ability of some individuals to access the full capabilities of the web. Manner’s larger hope for the new administration is that “it will take a holistic view and really recognize that there needs to be a technologically neutral, balanced approach to spectrum management.” 

Recently the FCC awarded Space X $855 Million out of its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to expand high-speed internet access to Americans that live in places that are otherwise difficult to reach with broadband access. Hurwitz asked Manner’s perspective on that allocation, given that she is also employed by a satellite broadband company that receives RDOF funding. Her concerns were in regard to RDOF funding recipients more generally, “are (they) able to meet what they’ve committed to,” which relates to a lot of factors, including “what their capacity is. Can they really do the speeds (which they represent in their funding proposals)? And that’s the question — and I think that’s a fair, open issue that’s been raised in the RDOF proceeding, not just by competitors, but also by members of Congress.”

Hurwitz notes that those sorts of issues regarding would-be contractors making claims that sound brilliant on paper, but are far from certain to be achieved in reality, are also present in the case of fixed wireless providers. “If they’re able to do that, it’s going to be incredible, but if they can’t, then we’ve just thrown a lot of money, and more importantly, a lot of years at building out an infrastructure that we will then need to claw back, and reallocate, and rebuild.”

When asked what misconceptions exist surrounding spectrum, Manner noted one misapprehension that recently found its way into a piece of proposed legislation: the incorrect notion that when it comes to spectrum, we need symmetric upload and download data rates. And that has implications for the amount of capacity that is required, and, according to Manner, “it makes it more difficult for more competitors to participate” in the marketplace 

If readers/listeners are interested in exploring these topics more fully, Manner recommends the work of: 

Dale Hatfield, Executive Fellow, Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship

as well as 

The FCC Website (which maintains its own news feed).

Tech Refactored Episode Review