Release: The Importance of Permissionless Innovation in Unlicensed Spectrum Bands

February 1, 2016

(Washington, DC)— Today, Mobile Future released a new report The Importance of Permissionless Innovation in Unlicensed Bands,” examining the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) flexible approach to unlicensed spectrum bands and cautioning that any shift away from the current decades-long permissionless innovation framework would undoubtedly erode America’s unlicensed wireless leadership.

The paper offers a snapshot of seventy-five years of light-touch unlicensed spectrum policy that has helped pave the way for the unparalleled success of the dynamic U.S. wireless industry. Tracking the evolution of unlicensed from “spectrum wasteland” to the Wi-Fi successes of today, the report points to the myriad ways unlicensed has produced new capabilities and enabled services and applications that are critical to buttressing mobile broadband networks powered by licensed spectrum. The data illustrates that the key to this success story is the FCC consistently avoiding any requirement that devices operating in unlicensed spectrum adhere to specifications developed by any particular standards setting organization, employ any particular co-existence protocol, or pass any sort of litmus test for compatibility with other unlicensed technologies.

“The FCC’s role is ensuring the dynamic mobile marketplace is ripe for investment, innovation and meeting consumer demand,” said Mobile Future chair Jonathan Spalter. “By continuing to embrace a permissionless policy framework for unlicensed, paired with a pro-market light touch approach to licensed spectrum, the Commission fosters industry led solutions and innovation to help ensure consumers – and the U.S. economy – stay atop the global wireless leaderboard.”

Tracing back to 1939, the paper outlines the FCC’s policy on unlicensed spectrum through decades of trial and error, landing on a technology neutral approach that establishes generally uniform regulations that set “minimal restriction on usage, bandwidth, modulation technique, and other technical parameters.” The report finds that this flexible approach set the stage for the explosion of unlicensed devices consumers enjoy today, particularly in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Within the frequency bands designated primarily for unlicensed uses, and subject to these minimal technical constraints, consumer devices flourish in the ever-faster development cycles that characterize modern information and communications technologies.

The paper also sheds light on the remarkable technological diversity of unlicensed devices that have met unique needs throughout the digital revolution. “In the wake of the FCC’s initial 1938 unlicensed decision, manufacturers of unlicensed record players, carrier current communication systems, and remote control devices entered the market.  The 1950s saw the introduction of radio receivers and low power transmitters operating in the 27 MHz band and above 70 MHz. Devices using new wireless capabilities in the unlicensed bands complemented the growth of suburbia with its bigger houses and spread-out communities:  Wireless microphones, telemetry systems, garage door operators, television interface devices, anti-pilferage systems for retail stores, auditory assistance devices, control and security alarm apparatus, and cordless telephones all entered the marketplace starting in the 1960s.”

The paper specifically points to the ways in which unlicensed technology is driving the emerging Internet of Things (“IoT”):

  • Contemporary homes are full of unlicensed devices utilizing the 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, including wireless routers, video transmitters and receivers, wireless speakers, cameras, baby monitors, wireless keyboards and mice, and thermostats.
  • Radio-frequency identification (RFID), which uses radio waves to automatically identify people or objects, operates on an unlicensed basis in several bands, with common applications including pet recovery, package and inventory tracking, electronic toll collection, office security badges, and newer credit cards.
  • LoRaWAN is an emerging low power wide area network (“LPWAN”) technology intended for wireless, battery-powered sensors, devices, and things in regional, national, and global networks. Key applications for LoRaWAN connectivity include agriculture, smart parking, building management, supply chain management, water metering, water leak detection, industrial asset tracking, and healthcare.
  • WirelessHART technology provides connectivity in industrial settings by connecting “monitor pumps, cooling units, filters, engines, and valves otherwise difficult to access” other than through wireless technology.
  • Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) depend on 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz to deliver broadband in many rural areas.

The paper stresses that the FCC’s regulatory humility with respect to unlicensed bands—consistently rejecting suggestions to set coexistence standards, impose protocols, or mandate specific technologies— has resulted in substantial consumer welfare. The report points to several cases in which the Commission rejected mandatory etiquette in unlicensed bands:

  • 1997: The FCC expressly considered and rejected a listen-before-talk (“LBT”) protocol as an interim spectrum etiquette mechanism in favor of the ultimate adoption of a co-existence protocol to be developed by industry.
  • 2004: The FCC considered and ultimately rejected calls for the imposition of either a mandatory “listen before talk” spectrum etiquette, a requirement that devices cease transmitting if no information is being sent, and/or a duty cycle requirement for the 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands.  Commenters on the proceeding observed, for example, that imposing a duty cycle on new technologies for providing wireless VoIP products would “require extensive redesign and development with attendant additional costs, further delays in deploying the technology and reduction in system capacity” hurting consumer choice, particularly in rural areas.
  • 2015: The FCC reaffirmed its earlier decision to refrain from implementing a spectrum etiquette requirement, a duty cycle requirement or a requirement that devices cease transmitting if no information is being carried in the 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands.

The report concludes that the FCC’s permissionless innovation is working, evidenced by the last seventy-five years of groundbreaking technological advancement.