The chaotic record in this proceeding failed to persuade the FCC a spectrum etiquette is needed.

It has been almost 30 years since the FCC first allowed unlicensed devices to operate at relatively high power in the 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5.8 GHz “unlicensed bands.” The initiative, although widely opposed at first, proved to be a great success, ultimately giving rise to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, U-NII, ZigBee, and untold millions of devices in other, less-known categories. Behind every good idea is a smart person, who in this case was our friend Michael Marcus, then at the FCC and largely responsible for dreaming up the idea and getting it into the Code of Federal Regulations.

Over the decades the FCC has repeatedly tinkered with the rules for these bands, mostly in the direction of affording manufacturers and users greater flexibility. When it proposed one such set of technical adjustments in 2003, the FCC in passing asked if it should consider adopting a “spectrum etiquette” to improve sharing among unlicensed users. The term “etiquette” here is roughly synonymous with “protocol,” and generally addresses how devices would interact with one another to promote fair access to the spectrum. The FCC did not suggest any specifics. The ensuing 2004 Report and Order adopted most of the proposed technical tweaks, but noted opposition to a spectrum etiquette and announced the FCC was dropping the idea.

Cellnet Technologies, which provides automated meter reading in the 902-928 MHz band, asked the FCC to reconsider. In 2007, the FCC dismissed the Cellnet petition for being inadequately specific, but in the same document nevertheless formally proposed a spectrum etiquette for the 902-928 MHz band, and further, asked if should consider one for 2.4 and 5.8 GHz as well. Elements of the proposal included a listen-before-talk requirement, limitations on duty cycle for higher-powered devices, and a ban on synchronization among multiple devices.

Seven years went by.

In a recent Order and Second Memorandum Opinion and Order (O&SMO&O) the FCC finally rejected the idea yet again. The O&SMO&O politely understates that “Commenters held widely divergent views.” In fact the comments were all over the map, in vehement disagreement, with no ascertainable middle position. Doing the best it could with this chaotic record, the FCC decided there is no need for a spectrum etiquette in any of the bands at issue, and terminated the proceeding.

But is that really the end? The concept of a spectrum etiquette in the unlicensed bands has historically demonstrated vampire-like propensities, repeatedly rising from an apparent grave to cast its dark shadow across the village yet again. We will see soon enough if this most recent FCC action amounts to a stake through its heart.