What's the Frequency Kenneth? A Critical Assessment of Cognitive Radio Technology's Impact on the Spectrum Licensing System, and Vice Versa

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Submitted by C.A.Thompson 2010-07-16 13:45:45 EDT

Theme(s): Building Digital Skills


The scarcity of radio spectrum results in its very high value when it is auctioned or otherwise allocated. However, it is known that any one time 90 to 95 per cent of spectrum is not actually being used by those who have bought the right to use it. Cognitive radio technology actively listens for channels on the spectrum that are not in use, and thereby plays a more efficient role in the timing and operation frequency of radio transmissions. Such dynamic channel selection can prevent the accessing of a particular channel if it is in use, thus allowing more than one user to access the same spectrum. Please find attached a short 1000 word essay drafted in relation to my studies last summer which required analysing an emerging technology's impact on the law, and vice versa. I provide it to the Canadian Digital Economy Consultation as FYI as it may be helpful to the topic of building a world-class digital infrastructure, specifically in relation to the discussion question: "What steps should be taken to ensure there is sufficient radio spectrum available to support advanced infrastructure development?"


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I. Introduction

The scarcity of radio spectrum is apparent when looking at revenue that may be generated by it. In 2008, the Canadian government earned $4.2 billion from its auction of wireless spectrum,Footnote 1 and the "digital dividend" of spectrum freed up by switching to digital television in the United Kingdom is valued at between £7.5 to 15 billion.Footnote 2 However, imagine a technology that may impact spectrum licensing as greatly as the digital copy has affected copyright law. The purpose of this essay is to describe spectrum licensing, introduce the reader to cognitive radio technology, and critically assess its impact on the spectrum licensing system, as well as how the system itself may impact its adoption.

II. Spectrum licensing description

Radio spectrum is finite, and generally refers to frequencies between 3 kilohertz and 300 gigahertz. Current technology using spectrum requires protection from interference, and such interference is prevented with licensing of specific frequencies. The desire to regulate the use of radio waves received a jolt when an investigation into the Titanic's sinking revealed that wireless amateur radio interference may have delayed rescue attempts.Footnote 3 In 1912, An Act to Regulate Radio CommunicationFootnote 4 opted to require licenses for radio stations to prevent such tragedy of the commons in the future, and has evolved into the spectrum licensing system we see today. Each nation allocates spectrum according to their needs and international agreements,Footnote 5 and may assign spectrum according to national interest criteria or by other means such as an auction.Footnote 6 Unlicensed radio spectrum is a very small fraction of available spectrum; however, there are several innovative uses of that spectrum including wireless local area networks (WLAN), wireless personal area networks (WPAN), Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.Footnote 7

Several criticisms exist of the current spectrum licensing system. Since 90 to 95 per cent of spectrum is not used at anyone time, some allege spectrum scarcity is artificial.Footnote 8

It is further argued that artificial scarcity creates unnecessary pressure to advance technology in the direction of squeezing immense amounts of data in small amounts of spectrum, as is demonstrated by work in Multiple-Input Multiple-Output and Space-Division Multiple Access technology areas.Footnote 9 Moreover, regulatory agency allocation has been compared to a "beauty contest," and auctions as a way for governments to make money without weighing social values.Footnote 10 The volume of spectrum allocation applications forces some regulators to assign spectrum via lottery, such as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) in the 1980s who awarded spectrum to a group of dentists running cell phones on Cape Cod.Footnote 11

III. Cognitive radio technology impact on spectrum licensing

Cognitive radio technology is designed to actively listen for channels on the spectrum that are not in use, and thereby play a more efficient role in the timing and operation frequency of radio transmissions. Currently used by the military in hostile territories,Footnote 12 dynamic channel selection can "prevent a device from accessing a specific band if it is in use and to prevent co-channel interference of the primary user from a secondary user."Footnote 13

The impact of cognitive radio technology on the spectrum licensing system could have several disruptive effects. Since experts predict cognitive radio will lead to the eventual co-existence of licensed and unlicensed spectrum usage,Footnote 14 cognitive radio challenges the view that spectrum is a scarce resource. The greater use of spectrum could lower barriers to accessing spectrum. Instead of investing heavily in purchasing spectrum, technologists could devote more resources to developing new consumer products, which may challenge traditional players in the telecommunications market.Footnote 15 The success of unlicensed use of very limited spectrum such as WLAN, WPAN, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth may only be the tip of the iceberg.

While there will continue to be a need for law to govern spectrum sharing,Footnote 16 cognitive radio technology could fundamentally change the role of spectrum regulators. At the moment, regulators must micromanage in the area of radio spectrum allocation, including determining allowable power levels and antenna height.Footnote 17 For example, in Canada, spectrum is managed pursuant to the Radiocommunications Act which allows for regulations respecting technical requirements and standards,Footnote 18 leading to exhaustive specifications having to be maintained by the govermnent.Footnote 19 As the main goal of spectrum regulators is to prevent interference, cognitive radios may dramatically reduce the regulatory burden by programming interference specifications into future devices according to regulator-defined parameters for frequency, power, waveform, and geography.Footnote 20 There may be a greater role for the private sector to play in the organization of spectrum use, as secondary markets begin to develop for the trading and leasing of spectrum by license holders.

IV. Spectrum licensing impact on cognitive radio technology

Spectrum license holders have considerable concerns regarding possible interference with the use of their spectrum by third parties.Footnote 21 Technologists are not optimistic that the introduction of cognitive radio will take place soon in part due to the spectrum licensing system,Footnote 22 which has been described as an "easy opportunity for the old to protect themselves against the new"Footnote 23 and a possible tragedy of the anti-commons.Footnote 24 The U.S. General Accounting Office has identified as barriers the "lack of flexibility in the spectrum allocation system, policy makers' limited knowledge about spectrum use and new and emerging technologies, as well as a lack of agreed-upon models to assess [emerging] teclmologies," in addition to "[a] lack of incentives to achieve spectrum efficiency."Footnote 25

However, there have been developments in spectrum allocation flexibility that may create better conditions for cognitive radio's adoption in the future. The European Commission has set a target of 2010 for reaching a more flexible market-based spectrum management and usage rights.Footnote 26 The United Kingdom's Office of Communication ('Ofcom') is also pursuing marketbased spectrum management with up to 72 per cent of its spectrum.Footnote 27 The Wireless Telegraphy Regulations enable spectrum trading in the United Kingdom since 2004, with liberalization of spectrum to be finalized in 2009.Footnote 28 Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has pursued a reallocation compensation scheme, and has done so with the 100 Mhz band from 4.9 to 5.0 Ghz for outdoor WLAN in cities.Footnote 29 The Spectrum Policy Task Group of the F.C.C. came out in favour of "increasing opportunities for technologically innovative and economically efficient spectrum use," including dynamic spectrum access through cognitive radio techniques.Footnote 30 Of note, the F.C.C. has amended certain rules to lift barriers to the realization of cognitive radio technology, and has recognized that secondary markets (e.g. the leasing of spectrum) will be technically feasible in the future.Footnote 31

V. Conclusion

Will cognitive radio technology reframe the tragedy of the radio frequency commons, or fall into its own anti-commons tragedy? It may yet be decades before we have an answer.Footnote 32 Until then, it will be interesting to see if calls for "free spectrum" will become as popular as today's assertions for "free culture" regarding digital content and copyright. Stay tuned.


  1. 1 H. Solomon, "Spectrum auction anniversary" Network World Canada (22 July 2009). (back to footnote reference 1)
  2. 2 D. Athow, "Broadband's Digital Dividend Explored By British Government" IT Pro Portal (16 July 2009). (back to footnote reference 2)
  3. 3 Fette, ed., Cognitive radio technology (Oxford: Newnes/Elsevier, 2006) at 49. [hereinafter Fette] (back to footnote reference 3)
  4. 4 United States Pub. L. No. 264 §3 (1912). (back to footnote reference 4)
  5. 5 Constitution and Convention of the International Telecommunications Union, 22 December 1992. (back to footnote reference 5)
  6. 6 L. Berlemann & S. Mangold, Cognitive Radio and Dynamic Spectrum Access (Toronto: Wiley, 2009) at 8-9. [hereinafter Berlemann & Mangold] (back to footnote reference 6)
  7. 7 Berlemann & Mangold, supra note 6 at 2. (back to footnote reference 7)
  8. 8 Ibid at 3. (back to footnote reference 8)
  9. 9 Ibid. (back to footnote reference 9)
  10. 10 Ibid at 15. (back to footnote reference 10)
  11. 11 The dentists, however, "promptly sold it to Southwestern Bell for $41 million." Fette, supra note 3 at 35. (back to footnote reference 11)
  12. 12 B. Bing, ed., Emerging Technologies in Wireless LANs (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008) at 820. [hereinafter Bing] (back to footnote reference 12)
  13. 13 Fette, supra note 3, at 42, (back to footnote reference 13)
  14. 14 Bing, supra note 13 at 821. (back to footnote reference 14)
  15. 15 Fette, supra note 3, at 49. (back to footnote reference 15)
  16. 16 J. Brito, "The Spectrum Commons in Theory and Practice" (2007) Stan. Tech. L. Rev. 1 at para. 81. (back to footnote reference 16)
  17. 17 Fette, supra note 3, at 29-30. (back to footnote reference 17)
  18. 18 R.S., 1985, c. R-2, at s. 6(1)(a). (back to footnote reference 18)
  19. 19 See Industry Canada, Spectrum Management and Telecommunications Standards, available online at: http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/smt-gst.nsf/eng/h_sf01375.html (back to footnote reference 19)
  20. 20 Fette, supra note 3l at 17. (back to footnote reference 20)
  21. 21 See for example, BT's response to Ofcom consultation document on Ultra Wideband, available online at: http://www.ofcom.org.uk/consult/condocs/uwb/responses/bt.pdf. (back to footnote reference 21)
  22. 22 Berlemann & Mangold, supra note 6 at 2. (back to footnote reference 22)
  23. 23 L. Lessig, The Future of Ideas (New York: Random House, 2001) at 84. (back to footnote reference 23)
  24. 24 T.W. Hazlett, "Spectrum Tragedies" (2005) 242 Yale J. on Reg. 22. (back to footnote reference 24)
  25. 25 United States, General Accounting Office, Spectrum Management: Better Knowledge Needed to Take Advantage of Technologies That May Improve Spectrum Efficiency (Washington: GAO, 2004) at 17. (back to footnote reference 25)
  26. 26 E.C, Communication COM(2007)50, Rapid access to spectrum for wireless electronic communications services through more flexibility, [2007]. (back to footnote reference 26)
  27. 27 Berlemann & Mangold, supra note 6 at 12. (back to footnote reference 27)
  28. 28 See Ofcam, Liberalization Guidance Note, Section 2 "The Policy Framework" available online at http://www.ofcom.org.uk/radiocomms/ifi/trading/libguide/section2 (back to footnote reference 28)
  29. 29 Berlemann & Mangold, supra note 6 at 13. See also Japan, Radio Policy Vision & Strategy for Frequency Liberalization [2003], available online at: http://www.rieti.go.jp/en/events/03120401/pdf/takeda-en.pdf (back to footnote reference 29)
  30. 30 F.C.C., ET Docket No. 02- 135, "Report of the Spectrum Policy Task Force" (November 2002) at 3, 67. (back to footnote reference 30)
  31. 31 F.C.C., ET Docket No. 03-108, "Report and Order: Facilitating Opportunities for Flexible, Efficient, and Reliable Spectrum Use Employing Cognitive Radio Technologies" (10 March 2005). (back to footnote reference 31)
  32. 32 Berlemann & Mangold, supra note 6 at xxiv. (back to footnote reference 32)

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