Skip to content

Information Economy Project

The Genesis of Unlicensed Wireless Policy: How Spread Spectrum Devices Won Access to License-Exempt Bandwidth

A Conference Hosted by the Information Economy Project - Friday, April 4, 2008, Arlington, Virginia

Unlicensed wireless devices, from Wi-Fi routers to baby monitors to cordless phones, are in common use today. But the technologies they deploy were largely illegal until significant reforms were enacted in the mid-1980's. Starting in the United States, regulators permitted certain types of radios to access frequencies on a non-exclusive basis. These policy measures unleashing unlicensed have remained largely in the shadows.

This conference aims to bring new historical perspective to the emergence of the license-exempt rules and the applications that followed. It will explore the interplay between industry initiatives and government responses. It will showcase a series of academic research papers examining how unlicensed spectrum policies developed and how they helped shaped market responses.

The Information Economy Project is bringing together speakers deeply involved in crafting key policy changes, including spectrum allocations and technology standards. Many of the individuals have also been at the forefront of supplying applications via unlicensed spectrum. This conference should prove informative to people interested in spectrum policy generally, or unlicensed wireless in particular. It may also interest students of regulation, technological innovation, communications, or law and economics.

Conference Agenda:

8:15 a.m. - Informal Breakfast and Welcome
Thomas Hazlett, George Mason University School of Law

8:30 a.m. - Morning Keynote
Michael J. Marcus - Wi-Fi and Bluetooth - The Path from Carter and Reagan-era Faith in Deregulation to Widespread Products Impacting Our World
Mark Fowler - Federal Communications Commission Chairman, May 1981 - April 1987, Mark Fowler's Introduction of Mike Marcus, Read by Chuck Jackson

9:15 a.m. - Panel 1: Policy Development
Kenneth R. Carter - Unlicensed to Kill: a Brief History of the FCC Part 15 Rules
Stephen J. Lukasik - Unleashing Innovation: Making the FCC User-Friendly
Henry Goldberg - Grazing on the Commons: The Emergence of Part 15
Chuck Jackson - Moderator

10:30 a.m. - Break

10:45 a.m. - Panel 2: Market Development
Kevin Negus, Al Petrick - History of Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs) in the Unlicensed Bands
Ing Victor Hayes, Dr. Ir. Wolter Lemstra - Unlicensed: The Case of Wi-Fi
Tim Pozar - Broadband Access in Unlicensed Bands for Fun & Profit
Anthony Townsend - Moderator

12:15 p.m. - Luncheon Keynote
Dewayne Hendricks - What Went Wrong with U-PCS

1:30 p.m. - Concluding Remarks by Thomas Hazlett

1:45 p.m. - Adjourn

Speaker Biographies

The Information Economy Project is proud to present articles that have been published in INFO, Special Issue August 2009, INFO Volume 11, Issue 5 from the Genesis of Unlicensed Wireless Policy: How Spread Spectrum Devices Won Access to License-Exempt Bandwidth Conference held on April 4, 2008:

"Unlicensed Wireless Policy Conference: Guest Editorial" by Charles L. Jackson, 5 INFO (August 2009) Unlicensed wireless has become an industry, with hundreds of millions of radios in use today. These devices range from short-range wireless computer keyboards to microwave links with ranges of several miles. Among the most well-known are wireless local area networks (WLANs) often referred to as WiFi or 802.11. This special issue of info presents a collection of papers presented at a George Mason University Law School Conference on "The evolution of unlicensed wireless policy: how spread spectrum devices won access to license-exempt bandwidth" on 4 April 2008. The conference, organized by GMU Law School's Information Economy Project, reviewed the development of unlicensed wireless policy in the US with the goal of assisting scholars in understanding how current unlicensed policies came into being. It looked at the interplay between regulation and innovation and examined policy initiatives from industry and from inside the government. It also reviewed technological and market responses to changes in regulation.

"Unlicensed to Kill: A Brief History of the FCC Part 15 Rules" by Kenneth R. Carter, 5 INFO 8-18 (August 2009) The Information Economy Project congratulates Kenneth R. Carter, whose paper from the April 2008 IEP Conference, Unleashing Unlicensed, has been awarded the Best Paper of 2009 by the multi-disciplinary journal, info. Mr. Carter"s paper, "Unlicensed to Kill: A Brief History of the Part 15 Rules," was published in Volume 11, No. 5 of info, along with the other outstanding articles produced by the scholars and experts who contributed to our highly successful conference at George Mason University, organized by Dr. Charles Jackson. One would think that a paper on the history of unlicensed spectrum ought to be very short. For one, except for a very minor section of the Federal Communications Commission's Part 15 rules, there is no such thing as "unlicensed spectrum." Rather, the FCC's Part 15 rules permit radio operation on a sufferance basis in broad swaths of the spectrum which is not allocated specifically to unlicensed use. Second, when compared to other communications policies, the history of the unlicensed rules is rather brief. In the five decades between the establishment of the rules in 1938 and their major revision in 1989, the FCC issued only a handful of proceeding on the issue. The commission's actions on the subject begin to accelerate apace starting in the early 1990s. While the unlicensed rules may lack a glorious and romantic past, licensed operation holds great interest for spectrum policy wonks as well as rich issues for the spectrum policy debate. With increasing intensity over the last decade, proponents and opponents in this debate have held forth unlicensed operation as being either pariah or paradigm. Having participated in this debate numerous conferences and events, it seems to me that following syllogism describes the view of spectrum policy researchers toward unlicensed operation. Namely, that unlicensed operation is for economists akin to what the bumblebee is for aeronautical engineers. As the legend goes, according to aerodynamic theory, the length of the bumble bee's wings is too short for its body and thus, it should not able to fly. And, yet it does.

"Wi-Fi and Bluetooth: The Path from Carter and Reagan-era Faith in Deregulation to Widespread Products Impacting Our World" by Michael J. Marcus, 5 INFO 19-35 (August 2009) On May 9, 1985, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in a meeting that attracted little attention outside the few companies that lobby the agency, adopted a set of rules dealing with the esoteric topic of spread spectrum modulation. But like a seed planted in the ground, these rules resulted in the germination of new classes of products that ultimately had both significant economic impact as well as impact on the daily lives of many people. This decision did not start as an attempt to bring specific products to market, but as part of a program to remove anachronistic technical regulations and allow a free market in innovative technology, subject only to responsible interference limits.

"History of Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs) in the Unlicensed Bands" by Kevin Negus & Al Petrick, 5 INFO 35-56 (August 2009) The wireless local area network (WLAN) is today a ubiquitous device often taken for granted as a default interface for networked devices by users and manufacturers alike. But not very long ago, it was most definitely not so. Rewind the clock ten years back to 1998 and not only are there bitter technical and business consortia differences on WLAN approaches, but there is extreme skepticism and variation in opinion as to how, or even if, WLANs can ever become a mainstream network interface. The WLAN of that day appeared to lack both the throughput of the wired local area network (such as 10/100 Ethernet LAN) and the coverage of the cellular network (which was supposed to be "imminently" upgrading to Mb/s data performance). The WLAN to that point had largely evolved as a slow and unreliable emulation of the wired LAN, only without the wire. And as such the products and standards largely envisioned the end application for WLAN as a replacement for wired LAN in enterprise or campus environments where mobile users would roam with their networked personal computers (PCs).

"License-Exempt: The Emergence of Wi-Fi" by Ing Victor Hayes & Ir. Wolter Lemstra, 5 INFO 57-71 (August 2009) In 1985, this development had been triggered by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC)[1] when it opened the 915 MHz, the 2.4 and 5.8 GHz bands designated for industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) applications for the use by radio systems, under the condition that spread spectrum techniques would be used (FCC, 1985). Interestingly, the 1980 MITRE report that investigated the potential benefits, costs, and risks of spread spectrum communications on behalf of the FCC did not identify a strong requirement or need from the industry to assign radio frequency (RF) spectrum for spread spectrum based applications. The report concludes that spread spectrum technology is inherently more complex and thus more costly (Mitre Corp., 1980).

"Grazing on the Commons: The Emergence of Part 15" by Henry Goldberg, 5 INFO 72-75 (August 2009) What follows is a somewhat impressionistic, highly biased[1] account of how unlicensed radio services moved from being a by-product of the ISM bands to a deliberate spectrum allocation, with clearly defined goals and objectives that could be achieved only by not subjecting the spectrum to licensing or auctions. Like sin itself, the deliberate un-licensing of spectrum began with an Apple. In early 1991, Apple Computer was developing the Newton as the first PDA (Apple invented the term) and was pioneering in the laptop segment of the computer market. Apple believed that wireless connectivity was essential to the success of both products[2]. Accordingly, Apple petitioned the FCC to allocate 40 MHz of spectrum - 1,850-1,890 MHz - out of the 1,850-1,990 MHz band being earmarked for new technologies, particularly PCS. Apple called its proposed new radio service Data-PCS and proposed that it would be devoted exclusively to local area, high-speed data communications to support collaborative computing and spontaneous networking among laptops and PDAs. Data-PCS would, in the words of the petition...

"Unleashing Innovation: Making the FCC User-Friendly" by Stephen J. Lukasik, 5 INFO 76-85 (August 2009) There is a large literature on the issue of regulation and technological innovation from varied perspectives of history, politics, economics, law, finance, and engineering. To attempt to add something meaningful to this rich body of writings is challenging. My only qualification is that of a participant for a short but critical period. When I found myself, on May 1, 1979, the Chief Scientist of the Federal Communications Commission, twenty-three years after receiving my doctorate from MIT, my training said to decide what the most important problems were that needed fixing and to proceed by whatever promising means suggested themselves to fix them. My technical background was eclectic, the result of broad interests and perhaps a bit of impatience, but quite devoid of experience with the theory or practice of regulation. To understand what happened next on the technology and communication policy side of the FCC, it may be useful to look further into my improbable presence.

"Has 'Unlicensed' in Part 15 Worked? A Case Study" by Tim Pozar, 5 INFO 86-91 (August 2009) The Federal Communications Commission established the provisions for unlicensed operations of intentional radiators or transmitters for commutations in what was called the industrial scientific and medical bands. This was a significant change in mindset for the FCC and this case study is meant to show an example of how unlicensed devices have contributed to the community "good." The internet became a major economic entity and an essential tool for commerce in the mid to late 1990s. With that, the digital divide was identified as a significant issue by 1996[1]. Typically the digital divide has been the result of the cost of the equipment to use the internet, such as computers, as well as the cost or lack of access in connecting to the Internet. Many efforts by local community groups and governments have been made to attack the issue but one problem that they all encountered was addressing the "last mile" to connect the disenfranchised.

Information Economy Project
Information Economy Project | 312P Wilbur O. and Ann Powers Hall, 225 Walter T Cox Blvd., Clemson, SC 29634