Posted by Dan Reed
Corporate Vice President, Technology Strategy and Policy

A few weeks ago, Tim O’Reilly asked me if I would deliver a thought-provoking presentation on cognitive radio technologies and spectrum allocation policy at this year’s Gov 2.0 Summit.  In this post, I’d like to share a few highlights of my speech and expand on some related topics.

Today, feature-rich smartphones and mobile computing devices and consumers’ seemingly insatiable appetites for text services, social networking and streaming media are placing unprecedented demands on wireless communication networks.  YouTube reports that 24 hours of video is now uploaded to the social video site every 60 seconds, and Cisco projects that streaming video will increase wireless data transmission demands by 20X-40X over the next five years.  If you have ever experienced a loss of wireless services in a densely populated area, you understand the problem we’re facing.

In response, cellular carriers are scrambling to build new cell towers and deploy 4G technologies. However, all of this cellular infrastructure investment centers on a very small fraction of the total radio spectrum, allocated via regulatory and auction processes that date back decades to a far simpler and slower moving telecommunications world.

This historical approach partitions the radio spectrum and allocates frequency bands to different purposes—government, public safety, national defense, television, radio, cellular, and unlicensed consumer.  Fixed partitioning was appropriate when radio technology changed slowly and consumer expectations were defined by plain old telephone service (POTS). However, it has led to inefficient spectrum use, with some bands heavily subscribed and others rarely used.

In a seeming paradox, most of the potentially useful communication spectrum is unused or underutilized in most places because most of the time as it is allocated to functions rarely needed at any specific location.  Anyone with a spectrum analyzer can verify the truth of this statement at their location. To be sure, some of these functions (e.g., public safety) are critically important, and the spectrum must be available when the critical demand exists.

However, there is a common ground that would allow our finite spectrum to be used for critical purposes while also making it available for secondary purposes when not otherwise needed for the primary purpose. Using new technologies based on cognitive radios, which select unused spectrum in a specific location based on database lookup, we can shift spectrum allocation decisions based on fixed partitions to real-time allocation based on priorities, principles and availability. These cognitive radio technologies rely on software for functions that formerly required dedicated hardware, an approach made possible by powerful, yet inexpensive mobile devices.

Because cognitive radios can co-exist with other devices and adapt to changing circumstances as needed, they can reduce contention within fixed spectrum bands while respecting the relative priorities of the primary and secondary usages. Equally importantly, cognitive radio technology can be effective with both licensed and unlicensed spectrum, allowing greater efficiency and flexibility. Moreover, the rules can be changed simply by updating the spectrum policy database.

More broadly, cognitive radio is one of the enabling technologies for a new generation of rich services based on the Internet of Things. Imagine adaptive traffic routing for hybrid and electric vehicles based on traffic sensors, vehicle charge monitoring and driver calendar schedules. Or imagine in-home wellness monitoring for an aging population based on biomedical and environmental sensors, profile and mobility assessment and electronically mediated health care interactions.  Both of these scenarios and a host of others are dependent on anywhere, anytime communication among an ever expanding universe of intelligent devices and rich cloud services.

How do we move forward quickly, while respecting the processes and history that brought us to our current position?  White spaces are an important first step.

Spectrum in the television “white spaces” is one of the dividends from the US transition to digital television and a place where we can quickly use cognitive radio and dynamic adaptation for broad benefit. Devices using white spaces radios can detect and select unused frequencies and co-exist with broadcast television services.  White spaces technology could free new unlicensed radio frequencies for consumers in every community and generate investment in innovation, much as we observed with Wi-Fi. 

Later this month, the FCC is considering regulation that will make white spaces more broadly available.  The consideration of new technologies in our regulatory environment is an important step in establishing a broad spectrum policy framework that enables innovation, rewards experimentation and ultimately drives value. 

I believe we must adapt our policy and regulatory frameworks to enable deployment of cognitive communication technologies that span licensed and unlicensed spectrum. This dynamic approach would create opportunities to more efficiently manage congestion and offload capacity onto other spectrum bands to deliver higher quality, more robust services for government, business and consumer use.

Both technology and policy will be needed to realize this vision of everywhere, anytime communication. We can do this, working together.