Today, for the first time, there are more mobile than landline telephones in the United States. Satellite TV and radio are booming. In addition, public safety organizations and the military depend heavily on wireless systems to do their jobs. All of these technologies, and a host of new innovations, are competing for access to the increasingly crowded electromagnetic spectrum. As a consequence, spectrum policy has taken center stage at the Federal Communications Commission.
Seeking to allocate spectrum resources more efficiently, the FCC’s Spectrum Policy Task Force recently issued a report that suggests fundamental changes in the way the Commission regulates wireless devices and services. The centerpiece of this report is a proposal to promote more efficient spectrum allocation by improving the way the FCC handles the problem of interference. Interference occurs when the radio signals of one spectrum user degrade equipment performance for another user. As spectrum use grows, so does the problem of interference. The report suggests a useful new tool for measuring interference – the “interference temperature” metric – but concludes that no improvements are needed in the FCC’s legal interference standard. The FCC’s spectrum policy goals, however, will be difficult to achieve without such improvements. The interference temperature metric may allow the Commission to measure interference more effectively. But it will not determine whether a measured level of interference is too high, too low, or just right in relation to the goal of promoting the efficient use of spectrum resources. This is because metrics need standards if they are to be applied effectively, predictably, and non-arbitrarily. For example, deciding to measure the speed of cars with a miles-per-hour (“MPH”) metric does not tell us whether 45 MPH, 55 MPH, or 65 MPH is the right speed limit for a particular road. And deciding to measure interference with the interference temperature metric does not tell us what the permissible interference level should be for a particular spectrum band. To make this determination in a predictable and non-arbitrary way, the FCC needs a permissible interference standard. Surprisingly, the Commission does not currently have an articulated standard for determining permissible interference. Unless the FCC develops such a standard, efficient spectrum allocation, and predictability for corporate, military, and public safety spectrum users will suffer. This will result in less service for consumers, less investment by companies, and less effectiveness for national defense technologies. Part One of this article begins with a spectrum primer, then explains why developing a permissible interference standard is important to the FCC’s spectrum policy goals. Part Two analyzes the two most important recent spectrum battles and demonstrates that the Commission has not articulated a workable permissible interference standard. Part Three proposes that the Commission establish such a standard, and suggests a framework that would promote predictability and efficiency.