In separate reports to Congress, both agencies found high spectrum efficiency.
With all the work Congress has to do in averting fiscal cliffs, raising debt ceilings, and naming post offices, we were surprised they found time to look into whether fixed microwave spectrum is being used efficiently. Apparently no concern of national interest, no matter how obscure, escapes the attention of our lawmakers.
In passing the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, back in February, Congress tacked on questions to the FCC and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) about use of the 11, 18, and 23 GHz fixed microwave bands. Congress asked the FCC for the “rejection rate” in these bands – “rejection rate” being defined as the number and percentage of common carrier applications that are rejected due to spectrum congestion. Congress asked GAO whether current rules provide adequate incentive for efficient use of the spectrum, and whether the Government could maximize revenue by auctioning the bands.
Both agencies have now issued their reports.
The FCC very politely told Congress it had asked the wrong questions. Users in these bands are licensed on a link-by-link basis. A would-be applicant must successfully complete frequency coordination, establishing that the proposed link will neither cause nor receive interference, before it submits an application to the FCC. So by the time an application for this spectrum arrives at the FCC, it will already have passed the no-interference test at the coordination stage, said the FCC. This means the FCC's “rejection rate” for applications is necessarily zero. But even rejections by frequency coordinators are extremely rare, if they happen at all; the FCC estimated their occurrence at “well under one percent.” The FCC does not know how many of those are common carrier applications, it said, because frequency coordinators typically don’t know if a given application is for common carrier or private use.
The FCC noted that its current procedures allow for heavy re-use of frequencies in areas where demand is high, resulting in highly efficient use of the spectrum.
Much of the GAO report deals with basics of radio-frequency communications, licensing, and frequency coordination. Of course these matters are second nature to the FCC, although perhaps new to GAO (and possibly new to Congress as well). GAO went on to concur with the FCC that rejections due to frequency congestion are rare. Doing its best with Congress’s query on auctions, GAO struggled at length over the difficulties of auctioning spectrum that already has many thousands of users in place. It considered whether imposing “spectrum fees” instead might provide suitable incentives. But in the end, GAO found the FCC’s current approach in fact has encouraged spectrum efficiency. GAO concluded there is no clear need for either auctions or spectrum fees.
We think both agencies reached the right result. The FCC’s licensing and coordination procedures for fixed microwave services have evolved over many decades in response to the technical and economic realities of an industry that forms an essential part of the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure. The procedures are working well. We hope Congress gets the message and leaves them alone.
(Disclosure: FH&H represents the Fixed Wireless Communications Coalition, which provided substantial input to both the FCC and GAO in the preparation of their respective reports.)