Last week the Open Technology Institute (OTI) at New America filed a letter opposing the National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB) suggestion that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) consider allowing unlicensed use in 1120 MHz of the 6 GHz band – a staggering amount of spectrum – while reserving judgment on 80 MHz where broadcasters and public safety could continue to operate without the risk of interference. Unfortunately, OTI opposed in a knee-jerk fashion NAB’s reasonable, measured proposal. OTI’s opposition also exposed how little it understands what is actually at stake in the 6 GHz band.
This is cynical D.C., so of course OTI isn’t alone. In February, a bevy of conservative groups sent a valentine to their favorite tech companies heralding the potential policy benefits of allowing unlicensed use across the entire band. Lacking the capacity or expertise to evaluate the technical claims of the letter Facebook ghostwrote for them, they expressed great, unearned confidence regarding the likelihood of interference with licensed services operating in the band and the ease of preventing such interference.
We take no particular issue with amateur pundits weighing in on policy at least plausibly aligned with their organizations’ missions. The problem is that there’s a considerable difference between acting like you know what you’re talking about and actually knowing what you’re talking about. And when it comes to evaluating the technical concerns about co-existence between unlicensed users and broadcast newsgathering, neither OTI nor the Center for American Spectrum Dilettantes has a clue.
In a tribute to efficiency if nothing else, OTI manages to cram into just a page and a half a stunning number of misleading or uninformed statements. First, OTI characterizes NAB’s solution as a “last-minute proposal.” In fact, NAB has long sought to keep spectrum used for mobile operation, whether by broadcasters or public safety users, free from unlicensed use because the newsgathering and other mobile operations cannot be coordinated or reliably detected. The only thing that changed is NAB agreeing to compromise and prevent low power indoor (LPI) unlicensed uses in only 80 MHz as opposed to the 350 MHz currently used by broadcasters and others without potential unlicensed interference.
Next, with the fierce conviction of the brazenly uninformed, OTI claims, “the record shows no valid evidence that electronic newsgathering (ENG) operations would fail or suffer harmful interference due to LPI use in the band.” In fact, NAB’s consistent position regarding the need to treat mobile operations differently in this proceeding is informed by a detailed technical analysis demonstrating that unlicensed use across the 6 GHz band is likely to cause massive interference to broadcasters’ electronic newsgathering operations. We would urge OTI to take the time to read the study. Yes, it’s long, yes, some of the words are quite large, and no, it’s not supported by OTI’s funders, but it’s enlightening nevertheless.
Leaping from one rake to another and effortlessly sticking the landing, OTI then suggests that venues can decide for themselves whether Wi-Fi operations and newsgathering are compatible. How exactly does OTI propose venues make that technical determination? What venue has that expertise? While some special events like the Super Bowl and political conventions hire them, venues don’t have frequency coordinators. Even if they did, is OTI’s position that the FCC should abdicate its responsibility to prevent harmful interference and rely instead on the whims of individual venue owners? And most glaringly, the concern regarding harmful interference is not confined to specific venues – if Wi-Fi in the 6 GHz band is as successful as its proponents claim, hundreds of millions or even billions of devices will be in use across homes, offices and businesses everywhere. Should every private home or office hire a frequency coordinator to decide which user is more important?
OTI next attempts a flex by claiming that broadcasters can transmit an 8K video signal from a camera in 10 MHz – meaning that NAB’s proposal is excessive. Behold OTI’s technical chops and tremble, broadcasters! OTI should patent this magical technology immediately because, back in the real world, NAB just obtained an experimental authorization from the FCC to transmit 8K video from a state-of-the-art camera in a bandwidth of over 100 MHz. OTI doesn’t understand and apparently can’t be bothered to learn the fundamental differences between production and ultimate end user transmission.
OTI also suggests, with no sense of irony at all, that broadcasters should rely on licensed spectrum in other bands, despite the fact that Wi-Fi use, just like the use proposed in this proceeding, has already been shown to cause harmful interference in other bands, including 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz.
Finally, in a letter fittingly filed on the seventh anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, OTI suggests that broadcasters rely on bonded cellular technology for newsgathering operations. But cellular networks often fail during critical times, including immediately following the marathon bombing. Broadcasters, whose spectrum use for newsgathering is orders of magnitude more intense than a call, text or video chat, would have been completely unable to report out news from the tragedy without access to spectrum OTI now considers wasteful.
The FCC should ignore views like OTI’s and the gaggle of one-person special interest groups that filed demonstrably uninformed Facebook letters. NAB’s proposal to keep 80 MHz of the 6 GHz band off the table, temporarily, is a safety valve. No one has field tested RLAN systems against other 6 GHz uses and NAB has good, science-based reasons to believe that mobile uses are the most vulnerable. Everyone admits that there is some possibility that interference might result, but no one agrees on the probability that it will happen or the resulting harm. Until there is some actual experience with RLAN deployments at 6 GHz, it simply makes sense to proceed cautiously, before we step on a rake that will leave a permanent mark.