This time, a ground-penetrating radar gets the nod

The FCC has issued yet another in a long series of waivers for ultra-wideband imaging devices.

This time the product is an instance of “ground-penetrating radar” (GPR), one of eight species of ultra-wideband equipment approved by the FCC back in 2002, each with its own set of technical restrictions. This particular GPR unit is towed behind a truck at highway speeds to inspect roadbeds and bridges for hidden defects.

The device fails to comply with two of the detailed rules that govern ultra-wideband devices: it generates a wide bandwidth by quickly stepping from one frequency to another, rather than transmitting on many frequencies at once; and it complies with the applicable emissions limits only when the frequency stepping is active, rather than stopped on one frequency, as the rules require. The waiver applicant, Curtiss-Wright Controls, Inc., explained why these departures are necessary to achieve better performance, and why they do not increase the threat of interference to other spectrum users.

Two opponents argued, in effect, that a waiver would allow manufacturers to concentrate radio-frequency energy in sensitive bands, including the band used by GPS satellites. The FCC responded with conditions on the waiver that prevent the device from using any one frequency for longer than 2 microseconds at a stretch, and more than 0.033 percent of the time overall. Other conditions require the device to avoid certain sensitive bands. With those limitations in place, the FCC determined, the Curtiss-Wright device will be no more interfering than a compliant GPR.

We have written before about the disadvantages of regulating by waiver: delays in getting a product to market (the Curtiss-Wright proceeding took 19 months, about par for the course), high legal expenses, unpredictability as to outcome and, in the end, a confusing patchwork of permitted and non-permitted devices. Not that the FCC should stop granting waivers to applicants that make a good case. Given the fragmented nature of the ultra-wideband rules, the waivers are the only way the industry can evolve to meet customers’ demands. Far better, though, would be an overhaul of the ultra-wideband rules that drops unnecessary restrictions and distinctions, and instead authorizes any ultra-wideband device that presents no realistic threat of interference. We understand that would take political finesse, as certain influential spectrum users have a history of overstating the risk of interference to their respective services. But we think the task is worth the effort. A single, coherent set of rules would be a big boost to an industry that, from the beginning, has shown an enviable flair for technical innovation.