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25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
A series of posts describing how this all came about. (Click on picture above)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The TAC Without the Tic

[First on an unrelated topic, best wishes to all my friends of Asian ancestry for a Happy New Year!]

Like in the former Soviet Union and today's China, one often has to infer what is going on at FCC in spectrum policy by "reading tea leaves" or looking for indirect signals. Thus my pre-FCC Cold War experience comes in useful some times.

If you go to the FCC home page you can see that FCC now has 10 advisory committees:
Commercial Mobile Service Alert Advisory Committee, Consumer Advisory Committee, Diversity Federal Advisory Committee, Hurricane Katrina Independent Panel , Intergovernmental Advisory Committee, Media Security and Reliability Council, Network Reliability and Interoperability Council (NRIC), North American Numbering Council, Technological Advisory Council (TAC) and WRC-07 Advisory Committee.

The TAC is one of the oldest of these, dating to 1999 but does the TAC really exist today? Is this a general indication of the FCC's interest in technical policy issues - an intrinsic part of its jurisdiction? Let's examine recent "tea leaves". The TAC hasn't met since July 20, 2006 -- which was its only meeting in 2006. Then look at this:

[Click on image to go to original document]

The TAC meeting for October 25, 2006 was mysteriously cancelled 2 days in advance, The meeting had only been publicly announced on October 18th and was supposed to deal with "Broadband Communications Technology Development". It has never been rescheduled nor have any other meetings been scheduled. (Unconfirmed rumor has it that something on the TAC agenda for this meeting was controversial with the 8th floor and hence the sudden cancellation.) The present TAC Charter says "The Council will meet three to five times per year, with the possibility of more frequent meetings by informal subcommittees."

A little on the background of the TAC. In 1997 both the Engineering and Technology Practice Committee of the Federal Communications Bar Association (FCBA) and the Committee on Communications and Information Policy (CCIP) of IEEE - United States Activities (IEEE-USA) recommended to FCC that they create an technical advisory committee to help with that part of the FCC's jurisdiction. This was based on the experience of other regulatory agencies with technical jurisdiction such as EPA, NRC, FDA, and FAA. These are very well documented in a book from Brookings Institution entitled The Advisers. In FDA, advisory committees de facto make most of the major new drug decisions but in other agencies they serve more as a review function and an extra resource. Given the lack of people with technical policy backgrounds at the top levels of FCC leadership one would think some version of this type of backup would be useful.

While the FCBA group was discussing the concept, a distinguished communications lawyer observed, "Some technical policy questions actually have answers!" By this he meant that while most bottom line decisions on spectrum must consider both technical and nontechnical issues in a subjective way, there are subproblems within these decisions that have objective answers. He specifically mentioned the controversy at that time of U-NII and one band that was to be shared with satellite uplinks. Some argued that as few as 10,000 U-NII terminals in the US could degrade the satellite uplinks, others argued that the number was more like 100,000,000. Now reasonable people can disagree about assumptions but it seemed strange that the two sides were off by 4 orders of magnitude/40 dB! This would seem an excellent example for some objective outside advice.

The FCBA and IEEE-USA letter went to Chairman Hundt who forwarded them to OET. Senior OET managers felt threatened by the suggestion and dragged their feet until Hundt left. Chairman Kinnard and incoming OET Chief Dale Hatfield were less threatened and implemented the suggestion but addressed staff concerns by limiting the charter to advising the Commission on new technologies that were on the horizon as opposed to pending issues. Thus the TAC has never addressed any aspect of the multiyear Nextel/public safety 800 MHz interference issue nor the ongoing "TV whitespace"/Docket 04-186 issue. This avoidance of key issues results from both senior OET staff wanting to avoid any threat to their power and influence and a desire by TAC chair Bob Lucky to avoid controversy that might be divisive.

Bran Ferran, the well respected head of Walt Disney Imagineering and CTO of Disney was a charter member of TAC and dropped out because of the limited scope and the lack of interest of FCC leadership. He told me that he had been involved in a similar committee at SEC and that after every meeting they had some "face time" with the SEC Chairman. At TAC meetings, an FCC commissioner sometimes drops in to say a few words at the beginning and disappears. Sometimes 8th floor staff stays, usually not.

As said above, I believe that an invigorated TAC could add value to technical rulemakings by looking at key technical subproblems. It need not come up with a definitive answer in all cases (satisfying Chairman Lucky's concern about avoiding divisive controversy) but could list the pros and cons and issues that have to be considered. let me gie one specific example. In 04-186, the proponents say that one could build a DTV signal detector that could be effective at input levels as low as -114 dBm. Opponents of the NPRM say that such a detector would always have false alarms and thus would be useless. OK, TAC, what are the issues here?

The wireless industry is a key contributor to the US economy both in its magnitude and its impact on other sectors as a key infrastructure for both economic efficiency and public safety. As Admiral Rickover said to young Lt. Jimmy Carter, "Why not the best?"

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