FCC’s November 30 agenda also includes proposals affecting experimental licenses, short-term spectrum use.

The FCC is preparing itself for an exciting 2011.

Here in the CommLawBlog bunker, we usually wait for things to happen before reporting on them. But the FCC’s recent release of the planned agenda for its November 30 meeting serves up items likely to cause such a huge stir that we all might need a little advance warning.

First is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on “TV Spectrum Innovation.” Remember the DTV transition when, among other changes, almost all TV stations switched their channels? The FCC wants to do it again. The shift to DTV freed up 108 MHz of prime spectrum, half of which the FCC auctioned off for $20 billion. It’s hard to argue with that many zeroes, so it’s back to the well for another dip. 

The idea is to take away still more TV spectrum and auction that off, too. In theory, a displaced broadcaster could walk away with some of the auction money and open an aromatherapy boutique, or whatever his/her life’s dream is. Or he/she might double up with another broadcaster on a surviving channel. Although the FCC can authorize the channel sharing itself, sharing the auction money would require action by Congress. (As we have previously reported – here (about S. 3610) or here (about H.R. 5947), or here (about S. 3756) – that legislation is already in the works.) While the FCC has made no secret of its aim to scavenge TV spectrum for broadband use, the precise mechanics have not yet been spelled out. On November 30 we should get a clearer picture of what the FCC has in mind.

We are also interested to see how the expected changes will affect plans for “white space” devices. These, if they ever appear, are supposed to operate in unused TV spectrum, but the FCC’s plans will make that scarce. The wireless microphones used in TV and movie production, among other applications, also use vacant TV channels, and may likewise have less spectrum to work in. The “spectrum domino effect” at work.

The second item on the November 30 agenda is a proposed change to the experimental licensing rules.  This category of license allows companies, universities, and others to experiment with kinds of radios, often newly developed, that do not comply with the FCC’s detailed technical rules. In fact, most of the wireless gadgets we use every day started life under one of these experimental licenses. The substance of how these licenses work has been largely unchanged for decades. The FCC is considering a facelift to make them more flexible.

Third is a Notice of Inquiry on “opportunistic use” of spectrum. In this context the term has no derogatory connotations, but rather refers to radio technologies that “sniff” the air for temporarily vacant frequencies, and move into them until the rightful owner needs them back. The FCC here continues a sequence of developments that began with software-defined radios in 2001, and continued with cognitive radios in 2005. It also continues a parallel effort, under the general heading “secondary markets,” toward setting up licensing rules that facilitate temporary handovers of spectrum.

By the time of the FCC meeting on November 30, the leftover turkey should be gone, the tryptophan should have worn off, and we should all be ready to work. The FCC will give all of us here plenty to work on.