FCC Overhauls Experimental Licensing to Favor Academia Over Industry

The FCC has been busy lately with proposals on use of “white space” spectrum and, of course, net neutrality. Largely overlooked has been a much welcomed proposal (see the Notice of Proposed Rule Making or “NPRM”) to reform the Experimental Radio Service (ERS). Unfortunately, a key part of these reforms, an initiative pertaining to “research program experimental licenses,” will only be made available to researchers affiliated with academic institutions and non-profits. Researchers in industry – who have been historically responsible for the vast bulk of wireless innovation – are specifically excluded from participating. This blog post will review the NPRM, as well as summarize and excerpt my comments, filed with the FCC a couple of days ago.

The FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rule Making on experimental licensing has a lofty goal:

“Our goal is to inspire researchers to dream, discover and deliver the innovations that push the boundaries of the broadband ecosystem. The resulting advancements in devices and services available to the American public and greater spectrum efficiency over the long term will promote economic growth, global competitiveness, and a better way of life for all Americans.” [NPRM para. 1]

The NPRM proposes six specific initiatives and reforms [NPRM para. 2]:

“In particular, we propose to:
(1) create new opportunities for universities and researchers to use a wide variety of radio frequencies for experimentation under a broad research license that eliminates the need to obtain prior authorization before conducting individual experiments;
(2) empower researchers to conduct tests in specified geographic locations with pre-authorized boundary conditions through the creation of new “innovation zones”;
(3) promote advancement in the development of medical radio devices by creating a medical experimental authorization that would be available to qualified hospitals, Veterans Administration (VA) facilities, and other medical institutions;
(4) broaden opportunities for market trials by revising and consolidating our rules;
(5) promote greater overall experimentation by consolidating and streamlining our existing rules and procedures; and
(6) open new opportunities for experimentation by making targeted modifications to our rules and procedures.”

This first initiative is particularly exciting. The NPRM correctly notes a significant problem with the current ERS process:

“The existing experimental rules are generally written to support discrete research projects, require detailed documentation prior to approval, and contain restrictions on how experiments can be modified once authorization is granted. We believe that the current arrangement is an ill fit for the culture of inquiry and exploration at academic and research institutions, and that it is not nimble enough to account for the rapid changes and modifications typical of today’s technological research. By limiting experiments to a narrowly defined inquiry, specific frequencies, emissions and power levels, our current rules can prevent researchers from using the results of experiments to try out new ideas and make innovative changes unless they obtain a new or modified authorization. The time and process for obtaining experimental authorizations can also be a roadblock to innovation. Diverse research projects are often conducted simultaneously under different experimental authorizations across separate organizational units within an institution or under different research partnerships with corporate partners. The need to obtain multiple authorizations can result in additional administrative burdens and inefficiencies, and serve to stifle the interaction of research ideas that can multiply their impact. Moreover, the nature of the academic calendar, challenge of limited course lengths and constraints in securing funding serve to make it less attractive for research institutions to apply for, and await processing of, multiple new experimental authorizations. In sum, the limitations inherent in our existing rules may hinder research and innovation and retard the speedy transformation of ideas into marketable products – ultimately resulting in an unfavorable environment for conducting research in the United States.” [NPRM para. 16]

These same problems impact academic and industrial research alike. In fact, the individual inventors and small businesses responsible for some of the most exciting and innovative wireless technologies are least able to navigate the current bureaucratic approval system and most deserving of regulatory relief. Ironically, the NPRM cites experimental licenses granted to Qualcomm and Omni-Point Corporation that ultimately led to Personal Communications Services (PCS) in the 1850-1990 MHz band as examples of the beneficial results enabled by the ERS [NPRM para. 4]. Perhaps the greatest success story of the Experimental Radio Service from the last couple decades is Qualcomm – an organization that the NPRM would make ineligible for the proposed research program experimental license. One will look in vain through the NPRM for a justification of why this regulatory flexibility should be granted only to researchers affiliated with academic institutions and non-profits. These excerpts are the closest to a justification I could find:

“Given the unique abilities of universities and research institutions to act as trusted stewards of the radio resource, they are prime candidates for a new type of license designed to permit a broad range of research and innovation in the radio spectrum.” [NPRM para. 22]

“This new research license will be limited to colleges, universities, and non-profit research organizations. These institutions typically have a record of generating the types of innovations and technological breakthroughs we seek to foster. We tentatively propose to limit applications under this rule to Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredited institutions with graduate research programs in place or existing industry partnerships and to nationally recognized non-profit research laboratories. Further, we propose that these institutions must have defined campus settings and institutional processes to monitor and effectively manage a wide variety of research projects. We seek comment on this proposal.” [NPRM para. 20]

“The Nation’s colleges, universities, and non-profit research organizations are a powerhouse for ideas that fuel major advances in communications and propel both fundamental research and applied development in the field. Given the vital role of research and development as an engine of innovation and investment that delivers critical economic benefits, we propose new procedures by which qualified institutions would be permitted to conduct radiofrequency experiments without prior authorization of specific frequencies, subject to web-based registration and reporting requirements, avoidance of certain restricted frequencies, and other limitations.” [NPRM para. 14]

The justification appears to be that universities are “a powerhouse for ideas” and “have a record of generating the types of innovations and technological breakthroughs we seek to foster.” These claims are asserted with nothing more than anecdotal evidence. In fact, the Commission’s own history of granting experimental licenses demonstrates that academic institutions are a minor player in wireless research. “…[A] quick review of a recent report on experimental actions shows a total of three academic applications out of forty-nine total issued experimental licenses – about 6% of experimental research activity. The NPRM proposes providing preferred status to a small subset of researchers – a discriminatory policy without a perceivable rational basis.” [Schantz Comment, para. 4]

In future posts, I will consider the relative role of industry and academia in technical innovation in general and wireless innovation in particular.

UPDATE See also, more from ÆtherCzar:

And some additional links:

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