TR: Are there other disadvantages to the current regulatory structure?
Reed: There are several problems. One problem is that it’s very hard to determine in advance what services will be successful. So if you try to put the FCC or some international body in charge of determining which are the most beneficial new technologies, you’re putting the cart before the horse. If you can’t try it out on real customers, then you have no idea what’s going to work.
TR: So do new technologies such as ultrawideband really not interfere with, say, my cell phone or an airplane’s electronics?
Reed: Left to ourselves, I think engineers would be able to find solutions to almost any of these problems-should they turn out to be problems. For example, there is a whole lot of unused capacity in the current UHF television band. There’s an FCC proposal to allow unlicensed use of that spectrum as long as the technologies being deployed don’t interfere with existing users. Because that band propagates much better through trees and other sorts of things, it could enable a new generation of digital communications networks that could coexist with television, and that would handle longer-range communications better than Wi-Fi. There are a lot of potential engineering solutions to avoiding any interference that might be caused. Software-defined radios are now possible that can essentially dance around the existing television services. But it’s very hard to make the case that this will work when you’re basically facing political opposition, rather than technical opposition that wants to work with you.
TR: So what could improve the situation?
Reed: I think the desirable future would create more opportunities for experimentation and follow-on. Right now there is a huge disincentive to even do research on novel kinds of systems, because it’s considered extremely expensive and almost a waste of time to try to go through the FCC process for anything that’s very different from what’s currently out there.
The other side of that is creating regulatory openings that allow significant exploration. A really good thing that happened was the opening of the completely unlicensed spectrum that Wi-Fi and the new 802.11a wireless standards work on; [the Wi-Fi band] was authorized by the FCC in 1985, and the [802.11a] bands were authorized in the mid-1990s. The technology gradually evolved, and a networking standard was developed to increase interoperability in the late 1990s. We need more of these unlicensed bands-and of wider frequency-because people want more and more devices to communicate faster and faster, and today’s Wi-Fi architecture doesn’t scale to handle more users efficiently. New bands increase the rate at which innovations can be brought to market.