Through The Looking Glass, Our Vanishing Spectrum – Part I
LBA asks the Old RF Curmudgeon to put on his magic glasses and look through the swirling mists of spectrum policy. In this several part (he’s still looking) series the Curmudgeon will share with us the fantastic visions of spectrum usage and policy that he tunes in. Look with him carefully, as the spectrum path is yet untrodden, and unknown monsters abound along it!
Here’s a nice little nightmare to contemplate: The time is twenty years in the future from today. A fortuitous combination of developing technologies — ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Circuits), ultrahigh capacity batteries, highly advanced data compression transmission methods, and a new generation of MEMS (Micro ElectroMechanical Systems) — have all matured to the point where an unprecedented and much-needed medical monitoring system is now both technologically and economically feasible. The development effort is complete and the monitor is ready for service in humans.
The system is a real-time, continuous, wireless, medical “vital function” monitor and controller, surgically implanted directly into the body. It is intended for use on patients with previously-identified, potentially life-threatening medical problems that could strike at any time. Until this point such patients might have remained hospitalized or might have been transferred to convalescent institutions. Now, with remote, wireless 7/24 monitoring by computers at a central medical facility, they are again free to go about their daily lives in their own communities. The computer monitors will detect, even before the patient does, that a physiological problem is developing. Under tight physician control, they can also remotely initiate a limited range of emergency in vivo therapeutic actions in the patient. Having patients’ instantaneous GPS position reports always available, the medical facility can rapidly dispatch a mobile medical team to transport the patient back to the hospital if and when major problems are detected.
The cost savings, in terms of avoided patient-days in hospital, are impressive. The decrease in patient mortality is significant. The medical profession is very enthusiastic. Medicare, which provides the medical insurance coverage for the majority of candidate patients, is delighted! And the patients are happy — they are living a full life at home with family and friends, not stuck in an institution for endless boring days.
But there’s still one seemingly insurmountable problem facing the new system. At this future time there is no available dedicated radio spectrum on which it can be operated! Obviously such a critical radio system cannot tolerate interference, and thus it cannot share already-occupied radio channels. But no unused radio spectrum remains in this future world, save in a few remote, rural areas of the country; the spectrum has been completely consumed! Thus there is a strong possibility that the new system can never go into service. And neither can some other new and beneficial technology developments then just coming out of the labs, which applications also depend critically on unhindered wireless data transmission for their effectiveness. But where have the radio channels that we then *really* need gone?
That’s easy to answer. Remember back to the heady days of the last decade of the 20th and first decade of the 21st centuries, the days when telecommunications and computer technology was exploding? One after another, new wireless communications systems came on line that promised the business community as minority users and the retail public as the majority adopters ever more convenience, ever increasing “freedom,” and ever more connectivity? Then-current wireless applications remained in place, holding their spectrum allocations. The newly developed wireless applications, many of which in their earlier forms had used land line-based communications circuits, flooded onto the air behind the existing ones. And the country reveled in a radio frequency spectrum “bubble!”
Consumers were delighted with the new wireless developments, for they had just discovered a new “need” that they hadn’t previously recognized, and they saw that the new “need” could now be filled. “We need to be in ‘forever’ contact with our world, we need permanent personal connectivity, we NEED continuous, anywhere-anytime ‘broadband-to-the-belly-button service.’ And we demand it! Millions of us demand it!”
Industry was delighted. “Here are giant new markets to be filled! We can make huge ROIs right now, make our ‘bottom line’ in the next quarterly shareholders’ report look great, and all that we need to accomplish this is to grab some chunks of spectrum for our new products to use. Sure there are some capital costs for doing this, but these will be swept away in the ocean of revenue that will be flowing into us!”
The FCC was delighted too. “We can make some hefty chunks of change by auctioning off big blocks of spectrum, grab some press attention by posturing as a government agency that is turning a profit without having to tax, and make our Congressional sponsors look good to the public too! But — best of all — once we unload the spectrum we’ll no longer have to provide costly enforcement for it! We’ll be finished with that messy, distasteful business of sending our engineers into the field to keep the law in Dodge City. It will no longer be the people’s spectrum, so we won’t need to worry about it!”
Back in those halcyon days, the only group that wasn’t happy were the few remaining “spectrum conservationists” (including the Curmudgeon). They instinctively knew that once Yellowstone National Park was sold off to the giant housing-project developers, come what may it wouldn’t be Yellowstone any longer. It would be, for at least many decades to follow, “Levittstone Park.”
Similarly, once the spectrum is auctioned off, it no longer belongs to the public. Residing in private hands and with significant capital investments having been made to obtain it, this spectrum can never be “refarmed” and re-used for new technologies. If it has been purchased exclusively for data transmission by “wireless widgets” companies, it will forever be used for that purpose or for some linear commercial successor to “widget technology.” That spectrum is just not coming back into the reserve bank. The industry that bought it can’t afford to “return” it, and the public anyway won’t relinquish their smothering wireless telecommunications “cocoon” that is so ferociously addictive.
Thus it’s not going to be available for emerging wireless Services based on future new technology. And especially the small, vital, non-commercial spectrum users will be bid right out of the market; only the well-capitalized corporations will hold access to the radio frequency spectrum.
Only at that future time, as the hypothetical new medical monitoring system struggles to come on-line, will we as a nation have discovered that “we have squandered our birthright for a mess of pottage!” Of course, then we will cry “we could have….. should have….. would have…..” But, back in the early decades, we didn’t! And thus, as Stan Laurel would say ….”Here’s another foine mess you’ve gotten us into, Ollie!”
Personally, the Curmudgeon is really going to regret our collective failure. Twenty years from now, he’s going to be at just the age where he could have really benefitted from that new medical monitoring system!
So in a series of future blog postings, the Curmudgeon will explore what can and should be done to preserve our precious natural resource, the radio frequency spectrum. For the present, however, “this nightmare is concluded. You may now awaken and move about the cabin!”
What do you think?
“Let’s keep the universe safe for RF!”
The Old RF Curmudgeon