FCC Seeks Comment on Receiver Standards - Again

Request reopens matter laid to rest just six years ago.

The FCC has reopened the difficult question of technical standards for radio receivers.

Everyone agrees that poor receivers impair efficient use of spectrum. In particular, receivers that respond to a wider swath of frequencies than necessary can receive interference from unwanted signals close by the intended signal. Just ask LightSquared, whose plans to use mobile satellite frequencies on terrestrial towers failed because its signal was close enough to GPS frequencies to overpower some GPS receivers.

Less selective, more interference-prone receivers are cheaper to manufacture. Market forces are not much help because a more selective (and hence more expensive) receiver is rarely of immediate benefit to the purchaser. The improved receiver does benefit other users seeking to operate on frequencies nearby, as better GPS receivers would have benefited LightSquared. But the manufacturer gains no competitive advantage to offset the higher price. So manufacturers, especially of consumer equipment, tend to supply the least selective (and least expensive) receivers that will work in the current spectrum environment.

A situation like this, where market forces act against the public good, is a classic set-up for regulation.

The FCC tried. Just over ten years ago it issued a Notice of Inquiry on whether to include “receiver interference immunity performance specifications” in its rules. After sifting through sixty-odd comments, and then waiting a few years, the FCC terminated the proceeding in a terse one-pager.

Now the issue is back.

The FCC’s Technological Advisory Committee, whose job it is to keep an eye out over the technological horizon, delivered a white paper back in February called “Interference Limits Policy: The use of harm claim thresholds to improve the interference tolerance of wireless systems.” The details are complex; the basic idea is to add flexibility to the notion of “interference” from a nearby band. Almost simultaneously, the Government Accountability Office issued a report called “Spectrum Management: Further Consideration of Options to Improve Receiver Performance Needed.” This includes a good primer on the basics of spectrum management, and calls for better coordination on receiver issues among the various regulatory bodies and stakeholders.

The FCC has asked for public comment on the TAC white paper, and has now seen the request published in the Federal Register This cycle cannot by itself result in new FCC rules, but could form the basis for a future Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

Comments are due by June 21, 2013, and reply comments by July 8.

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