New kinds of licensing promise innovators easy access to nearly all of the radio spectrum.

The FCC has always been friendly to experimenters, whether they are basement hobbyists or industrial researchers. Since 1934 the Communications Act has enjoined the FCC to “[s]tudy new uses for radio, provide for experimental uses of frequencies, and generally encourage the larger and more effective use of radio . . . .” Just as important, many of the engineers at the FCC who began as teenage hams and tinkerers are eager to encourage the next generation. The FCC imposes only minimal regulation on amateur radio equipment, allows DIYers to design and operate home-brew transmitters with hardly any regulation at all, and offers “experimental licensing” so researchers and commercial innovators can test out new devices.

Nonetheless, while the pace of innovation accelerates, the rules on experimental licensing have stagnated. They require, among other things, separate FCC approval for each individual project. Ironically, considering their purpose, the rules are highly hospitable to minor variations on established uses of radio, while experimental licenses for more creative technologies can be hard to obtain. The FCC staff who do this work are technically capable and usually sympathetic to the applicants, but they are bound by the rules on the books.

In a burst of candor that may surprise equipment manufacturers and scientists, the FCC now concedes that the process for issuing these licenses can be a “roadblock to innovation.”  With this new self-awareness comes a comprehensive Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on experimental licensing rules so the FCC can (in its own words) “inspire researchers to dream, discover, and deliver” innovations to promote “a better way of life for all Americans.” The path to this Norman Rockwell ideal entails both updating the current rules and creating new licensing arrangements for research and development.

Few would dispute that the current system has become an obstacle. The various regulations for experimental and developmental licenses are scattered haphazardly through eight different rule sections. But the biggest problem facing development efforts, whether corporate, educational, medical, or scientific, is the need for project-by-project approval. The process is not only slow, but uncertain as to the outcome. And all the more so, as the technology at issue departs from current practice.

To address these problems, the NPRM lays out six kinds of rule changes.

First, a new licensing scheme would allow universities and non-profit research facilities to conduct testing and experiments on almost all frequencies, without separate approval for each project. Special requirements would help to protect cell phone, 3G, 4G, and broadcast frequencies. Operation would be restricted to the licensee’s campus, with emissions limited at the campus boundaries. Licensees would have to register their operations seven days in advance on a publicly accessible FCC website, through which spectrum incumbents can raise concerns of harmful interference. The FCC invites comment on a great many specifics.

Second, the FCC would establish “Innovation Zones” – geographic areas, possibly away from population centers – within which multiple innovators would have flexibility to experiment without separate project approvals. Licensees would need technical credentials, but would not be limited to universities and non-profit facilities. A landlord-licensee might invite companies and entrepreneurs to the facility to conduct research and development. As above, the public would have seven days’ prior notice of operations. The FCC again leaves a lot of details open for discussion.

Third, the FCC would establish a new licensing program specifically for institutions conducting research into medical applications, under rules otherwise similar to those above. Questions here center on the institutions that would qualify, the kinds of applications that could be investigated, and the appropriate reporting requirements.

Fourth, the FCC would consolidate and clarify a confusing collection of rules that now govern in-the-field testing and market studies for new devices. The revision would, among other changes, allow a manufacturer to sell not-yet-certified devices to a service provider, which in turn could lease (but not sell) them to consumers wanting to try them out. Manufacturers could sell uncertified devices to developers and system integrators as evaluation kits. The FCC would ease the caps on the numbers of uncertified devices that can be imported for testing and evaluation.

Fifth, the FCC would consolidate and streamline the existing rules on experimental licensing. The presently separate category for developmental licenses, little used, would be folded into the experimental licensing regime.

Sixth, the FCC makes proposals relating to specific situations such as anechoic chambers, Faraday cages, and open area test sites.

The proposed rules, which run to 37 pages, will affect just about every current and prospective user of the spectrum. The FCC should expect vigorous and conflicting comments. We foresee a major divide between entities committed to innovation, which will want greater flexibility, and spectrum incumbents, who will each demand greater protection for their own particular operations.

In the first three categories above, the FCC proposes to allow licensees to use any frequencies except those few marked as “restricted” in the FCC rules. (Restricted bands correspond to certain services that use especially sensitive receivers, such as GPS, satellite downlinks, and radio astronomy bands.) Even though most frequencies above 38.6 GHz are restricted by default (a few have been exempted), most of these, too, would become available to experimental licensees. Expect large numbers of incumbents in non-restricted bands to push back, each arguing that the importance of its service entitles it to greater protection.

Comments and reply comments are due 30 and 60 days, respectively, after the NPRM appears in the Federal Register. Watch this space for updates.