Not a Scarce Natural Resource: Alternatives to Spectrum-Think
65 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2017 Last revised: 3 Oct 2017
Date Written: October 2, 2017
Spectrum policy is in a rut, and so is spectrum policy research. To extricate ourselves, we need to dig into the language that underlies the practice.
“Spectrum” is a common term used to describe the wireless ecosystem. However, the term has never had a single, clear meaning. We investigate how the terms used in wireless policy have changed over the 20th century by examining U.S. legislative history. Early discussion focused on radio operations rather than spectrum, and spectrum — when used — denoted frequencies rather than a resource that operators used to provide radio services. Subsequently, the word spectrum gained popularity. Today, spectrum is commonly said to be a scarce natural resource.
We show that the scarce natural resource analogy — while providing some insight into wireless policy questions — fails to adequately convey the dynamics of radio operation. When viewing spectrum this way, the regulator or operator may fail to see future conflicts, and be blindsided by harms that could have otherwise been prevented.
We test our claim that the way wireless policy is framed affects regulatory oversight by examining three case studies: the unexpected interference to public safety in 800 MHz when cellular operation was introduced; the shift from out-of-band emissions to adjacent band interference concerns in the GPS/LightSquared case; and interference with Sirius XM reception due to T-Mobile transmissions in other bands.
We conclude that broadening the wireless policy discourse to include radio operation can help regulators craft better rules and anticipate harms that might otherwise be missed.
Keywords: analogy, history, language, metaphor, policy, regulation, resources, radio, Spectrum, wireless
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