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FCC taking a new look at one cause of spectrum squabbles: shoddy receivers

Federal regulators are just beginning to tackle a technical flaw that threatens to hold back the United States’ next giant leap in communications: Many of our radios suck.

The issue is a growing problem for telecom companies, which time and again have seen multibillion-dollar wireless projects run aground on claims that the new service would interfere with airwaves that other industries rely on. That was the root of a squabble in January that forced AT&T and Verizon to delay a rollout of 5G broadband service, as the wireless and airline industries jousted over whether the signals could cause planes to crash.

Similar fights in recent years have pitted new wireless projects against politically powerful industries such as automakers, electric utilities and cable operators, along with the U.S. military. In each case, companies offering new service on slices of the electromagnetic spectrum faced complaints that their transmitters’ signals would spill into adjacent airwaves — despite assurances to the contrary from the Federal Communications Commission.

But some critics say the problem isn’t the newcomers’ transmitters — it’s the incumbent industries’ receivers.

They maintain that poorly designed receivers ill-suited to the dawning 5G age, including the altimeters on some passenger planes, fail to filter out signals from nearby swaths of spectrum. That didn’t pose much difficulty when the spectrum was less crowded with users, but it’s becoming increasingly troublesome as the demand rises for super fast wireless connections to enable services such as video conferencing, telemedicine and connected cars.

As a result, “large amounts of valuable spectrum lie fallow, spectrum reallocations are contentious, and users of spectrum lack legal certainty,” the office of Republican FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington said in a statement to POLITICO.

His colleagues agree. And that bipartisan consensus could pave the way for a shift in how the telecom regulator approaches the wireless world, going beyond transmission.

“If we want to be efficient, we also have to think about the other end,” FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel told House lawmakers during a March 31 hearing. “We have to think about receiving.”

On Thursday, FCC commissioners unanimously voted to open an inquiry that could lead to a range of potential actions on the matter, such as nudging industry to embrace voluntary receiver standards, motivating companies to upgrade their gear or imposing more controversial regulatory mandates. That action comes nearly 20 years after the commission explored — then dropped — the idea of setting standards to ensure that radio receivers are built to withstand interference from cellphone signals.

Many telecom veterans say it’s long overdue for the FCC to revisit the issue — along with the pesky question of who should pay for replacing or upgrading existing receivers.

“As we pursue more intensive use of spectrum, it’s imperative that receiver technology keeps pace,” said Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Congressional Spectrum Caucus. She added that “recent history shows what can happen when inefficient technology threatens the reasonable use of adjacent spectrum.”

Jonathan Adelstein, who heads the Wireless Infrastructure Association, pointed to January’s spat over 5G versus air travel as a prime example of why action is needed. In that dispute, the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration, along with the respective industries they oversee, staked out opposing sides on whether the 5G signals could cause planes’ altimeters to give incorrect elevation readings.

“Clearly it’s time for the FCC to begin to consider receiver standards as we try to use every tiny bit of spectrum efficiently,” Adelstein said in an interview. He added, “The FAA issue brought this into bold relief.”

Adelstein, whose trade group represents AT&T and Verizon, is a Democratic former FCC commissioner who in 2003 voted in favor of a commission notice seeking feedback on the topic.

But others maintain that the FCC can’t regulate receivers and that Congress may need to step in before the commission takes any bigger steps.

In the proposal adopted Thursday, FCC staff invite feedback on their ongoing belief that “the Commission has the necessary statutory authority to promulgate receiver immunity guidelines and standards” — a stance that could land the agency in court depending on what steps it takes next.

‘It moves too fast’

Tech industry representatives are wary of the government wading in too intensely and favor efforts already underway in the private sector to set standards.

“Device makers are not operating in some Wild West scenario here,” David Grossman, vice president of regulatory affairs at the Consumer Technology Association, said in an interview, adding that “Congress has not ever explicitly outlined FCC authority around regulation of receivers.” He said existing law “would be an impediment” to the FCC charging ahead.

“Almost everybody concludes that the FCC doesn’t want to be in the business of regulating receivers,” added Brian Markwalter, a CTA senior vice president of research and standards who sits on an FCC advisory council. “There’s too much innovation, it moves too fast.”

But the recent spectrum wars have revived attention to the government’s largely hands-off approach to this key part of the wireless ecosystem.

The outcry around government decisions to free up airwaves for new kinds of wireless technology tends to focus on unintended consequences in nearby chunks of spectrum, such as whether 5G service from AT&T and Verizon would disrupt aviation safety equipment like altimeters. In another dispute, opponents including the Trump-era Pentagon criticized the FCC’s decision to allow a satellite company called Ligado to offer 5G service on airwaves adjacent to those that GPS devices rely on.

The recent aviation kerfuffle is leading the FAA to also look at developing new standards for radio altimeters writ large, then-Administrator Steve Dickson told lawmakers during a House hearing in February — work still underway under the agency’s interim leadership, the FAA said Wednesday. (Dickson had predicted results may not arrive until early next year, at best.)

Such FAA standard-setting could usher in “a sea change in radar altimeter technology” that frees up “a lot of spectrum that could be valuably used by other other purposes,” Dennis Roberson, who runs a technology and management consulting firm, said in an interview. He testified at the hearing where Dickson raised this same issue.

One key technical wrinkle is that super-fast 5G cellular signals, intended to accommodate data-hungry smartphone customers, are more powerful than what telecom providers have needed and used in the past, upending the conventional wisdom about how transmissions can co-exist. Limits on altimeters’ potential susceptibility to signal interference, for example, never existed because they didn’t have to, argued Eric Fanning, president of the Aerospace Industries Association.

Electronics “didn’t go outside of their bands,” Fanning said in an interview. “They just didn’t account for the future power of signals that would be right next to them because nobody knew those signals would even exist.”

“It’s not just that the altimeters weren’t built with 5G in mind, it’s also that power levels that 5G uses are so strong that we don’t know if there’s bleed-over [from] spurious emissions,” he said. That’s why the industry, together with the FAA, is in the process of testing those limits.

“One of the conversations now is, ‘Are future radio altimeters being built for future interference?’ You can speculate so much and imagine what might be in those bands,” he added.

Roberson argued that the 5G debate may ultimately force the FCC to regulate receivers once and for all.

Years of pressure

The U.S. has generally avoided regulating the quality of commercial wireless receivers, despite considering the prospect at various times in recent decades. But FCC leaders knew nearly 20 years ago that a spectrum crunch would create disputes where critical services bump up against faster cellular signals.

In 2003, when then-FCC Chair Michael Powell ushered through the initial notice of inquiry on the issue, he warned of a scenario in which the commission could “become mired in paralyzing interference debates pitting incumbents against new entrants.”

FCC officials subsequently distanced themselves from any direct regulatory role.

During the Obama years, FCC staff told the Government Accountability Office that the commission “lacks direct authority to impose regulations governing receiver performance in other cases outside home electronics.” The agency also worried about costs outweighing the benefits of other strategies to motivate receiver upgrades, according to a report released in 2013.

Lawmakers kept prodding the agency after fights over possible interference involving wireless and GPS spectrum first heated up more than a decade ago. That fight concerned questions over whether GPS signals needed for safe maritime and aviation operations would be harmed.

“I believe one of the problems contributing to the recurrence of these interference disputes is the lack of clear receiver performance guidelines,” then-Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) warned the FCC in 2011.

The same year, she separately raised the issue during Rosenworcel’s first confirmation process to become an FCC commissioner. Rosenworcel told Congress then that the FCC should take a “fresh look” at how it could promote more efficient use of the airwaves through standards on receivers — but acknowledged the dispute over the agency’s authority.

Rosenworcel, who now leads the agency after President Joe Biden tapped her as FCC chair last year, said at Thursday’s commission meeting that she anticipates “once again turning spectrum scarcity into abundance” with the new proceeding. “I look forward to making progress,” she pledged.

FCC middle ground?

Although Thursday’s vote is only a first step, FCC commissioners are talking about trying to find a balanced outcome that would prod industries to keep their wireless receivers up to date while avoiding heavy-handed mandates.

One idea the new FCC proposal raises is indirectly spurring receiver upgrades by limiting spectrum users’ ability to claim harmful interference from neighboring chunks of airwaves. That would allow the FCC to offer guidance on upgrading wireless receivers while giving device manufacturers and operators leeway on how to proceed, ideally with greater information available about the risks.

A white paper from an FCC tech advisory group had raised the same idea in 2013, prompting the agency to collect public input on the suggestion though it didn’t act on it.

One fan of that approach is Simington, one of the agency’s two GOP commissioners, who has voiced concerns about wireless devices since taking his post at the end of 2020. Behind the scenes, he’s been in talks with Rosenworcel for months about how to proceed — and repeatedly nodded to industry concerns about too much government prescription.

During last month’s House hearing, Simington assured lawmakers that “we are not going to cram burdensome regulations” onto device makers and underscored what he deems the impossible complexity of having the government field-test radio receiver performance. (The FAA ended up having to undertake this task to resolve this year’s standoff over 5G and altimeters.) He has previously scoffed at the idea that FCC staffing is sufficient for the agency to “serve as the receiver standards authority, if anyone can be one,” citing these technical challenges.

But he still wants to avoid what he once dubbed “cheap, poorly made” equipment vetoing effective U.S. use of its airwaves and maintains that the FCC has authority to shake up the ecosystem.

Establishing “harm-claim thresholds” — as the idea is known — “would have avoided situations where two government agencies have a fight over legal or engineering standards that are apples to oranges,” Simington’s office told POLITICO, suggesting that the proposal would lessen the “heat and hype” of spectrum debates. “It provides a framework in which all constituents know the baseline ground rules.”

The text of the FCC notice says the agency largely favors “various voluntary approaches” for many situations.

But the document leaves open the possibility of a range of actions. The commission could also shelve the issue, as it did two decades ago.

“It won’t be easy,” cautioned Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, the other Democrat, during the agency’s Thursday meeting.

Starks said the commission can move forward only in collaboration with the executive branch, which has not weighed in yet on these ideas, but said he sees broad promise in the effort. Addressing receivers could also help mitigate “nefarious interference events like jamming and spoofing,” he added.

In a footnote, the FCC proposal acknowledges that it doesn’t ask about interagency coordination but may seek “more focused comment in the future” about these airwave issues.

Longtime veterans see little choice, however, amid growing regulatory and legislative chatter.

Lawmakers are ramping up attention, too. Matsui is preparing draft legislation to keep the federal government from buying technology that is overly sensitive to inference from new wireless signals. She sees the bill as complementary to the FCC’s effort.

“At some point you just get more and more and more people, and more and more and more services, in this spectrum; you just can’t do it,” said former FCC official Dale Hatfield, who is now executive fellow at the Silicon Flatirons Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “You’ve got to begin to take up on receivers. It’s inevitable.”

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