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Winnik Forum: U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s Chief Engineer Explains that Flexible Use Spectrum Policy Will Readily Accommodate the Internet of Things

During the 2014 Winnik Forum, Julius Knapp, Chief of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s (“FCC”) Office of Engineering and Technology, rejected proposals to dedicate spectrum bands exclusively to Internet of Things applications.  According to Knapp, the FCC’s current “flexible use” rules for licensed and unlicensed spectrum can accommodate varied and yet-to-be-imagined applications, “negat[ing] the need for a dedicated Internet of Things allocation.”  According to Knapp, the FCC does not “expect right now that there’s going to be an [Internet of Things] band.”

The Internet of Things is not one single device, application, technology, or standard, Knapp said.  Instead, the Internet of Things relies on several different types of networks and protocols, including Bluetooth and Zigbee for short range and mesh networks; WiFi for larger local area networks; and commercial wireless 3G and LTE for wide area networks. Knapp explained that newly developed applications include connected vehicles, with manufacturers advertising LTE service and Wi-Fi in cars, as well as much publicized smart grid technologies. He added that connected devices have become prevalent in home improvement stores with home appliances, such as thermostats and light bulbs, capable of being controlled over the internet.  Similar advances are occurring with healthcare applications and with connected advertising, where advertisers can digitally update displays rather than manually rolling out new signs.  With an estimated 1.9 billion connected devices today, Knapp cited studies projecting that there would be some nine billion connected devices in use by 2018.

Under these circumstances, Knapp said that dedicating spectrum for narrow types of smart devices, tracking utilities, and machine-to-machine communications would waste limited resources. According to Knapp, the days of service-specific spectrum allocations are over – the Commission’s flexible rules in both unlicensed and licensed bands obviate the need for allocations narrowly tailored to specific uses.  Businesses can instead focus on locating spectrum that best matches their need, with higher-frequencies best accommodating high-bandwidth applications, and lower bandwidths accommodating uses requiring wider area coverage.

With continually growing demands on spectrum, spectrum efficiency remains an important consideration.  Currently many applications, such as thermostats and smart meters, rely on transmitting short-bursts of information, allowing for relative ease of spectrum sharing.  As data hungry applications like video grow, companies will need to focus on efficient standards.  According to Knapp, “[p]art of [the Commission’s mission] is sending the message to the [business] community, and a lot of the drive toward greater efficiency happens in the standards activities.”  By fully exploiting both licensed and unlicensed spectrum, new and emerging businesses can usher in the generation of new device communications that benefit consumers, governments, and businesses.

At the same time, Knapp noted that the Commission continues to work to increase the amount of spectrum available for commercial use.  These efforts include the freeing of currently licensed spectrum to higher-valued uses with the broadcast incentive auction, new efforts to promote dynamic spectrum sharing with the 3.5 GHz Band, and exploring new frequencies for commercial use with millimeter wave bands above 24 GHz.  While these processes can take many years to free new spectrum, Knapp said the FCC will continue to secure more general-purpose spectrum suitable for all types of uses, including the newly-emergent Internet of Things.