The Clash Of New Telcom Technologies: Will It Be Settled In The Private Sector, Or By Government?

Peter Ferrara Contributor
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The miracle of modern Wi-Fi technology was developed cooperatively through the private sector, with almost no government regulation or involvement. Wi-Fi operates through what is called the Unlicensed Spectrum. That spectrum is devoted to mass markets, where there are so many users that licensing each one would be impractical.

For example, also operating in the Unlicensed Spectrum are wireless telephones, Bluetooth, baby monitors, and garage door openers. They are all able to share that spectrum cooperatively by working through an independent, third-party, standard-setting organization called the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

That has worked well to help develop the Internet into a mighty boost for the entire economy. The majority of Internet traffic now operates through Wi-Fi, with over 11 Wi-Fi devices in the average household. Of course, wireless telephones are now ubiquitous in American life, and worldwide.

Working with IEEE, Wi-Fi was developed with “politeness” protocols built into each device that enable it to share the Unlicensed Spectrum with all the millions and millions of other users. Those politeness protocols are based on “listen-before-talk” principles. When a Wi-Fi device tries to go online, and encounters another device already using the space, the Wi-Fi device “backs off,” and tries again after increasing intervals, waiting its turn and smoothing out use of the spectrum.

A new wireless technology is now emerging, LTE-U, mostly for cellphone internet access. But the developers of that technology, primarily Verizon and Qualcomm (notoriously overprotective of its revolutionary, pathbreaking technologies), have not been working with IEEE. Engineers for CableLabs have found in tests that LTE-U takes advantage of Wi-Fi politeness protocols, talking over other Wi-Fi conversations.

That threatens the functionality of other devices accessing the Internet through Wi-Fi. If the developers of LTE-U cannot work cooperatively sharing voluntarily with other users of the Unlicensed Spectrum, Internet customers will complain loudly, ultimately inviting intervention by the FCC for a regulatory solution.

But that would bring politics and political favoritism into the equation, with the added expense of the contending parties having to hire armies of lobbyists. Plus the federal bureaucracy operates very slowly. By the time the bureaucrats get educated on the issues, and enact regulations for LTE-U, new technologies will already have arisen, and the bureaucracy will be falling farther and farther behind rapidly developing tech markets.

That will just slow down telcom innovation and discourage investment in development of new technologies. America is already falling behind the latest developments in telcom innovation in other countries, because of overregulation. And once a federal bureaucracy is brought into new markets, its regulatory burdens and barriers will just proliferate out of control.

The great advantage of working with independent, third party, truly expert, standard-setting bodies is that they leave the politics and political favoritism out of the issue altogether, and apolitical engineers just work on resolving the issue quickly and efficiently. That model of voluntary, industry self-regulation has already worked well to promote explosive innovation and investment in telcom markets. The telcom industry would be foolish to lose those essential advantages, to the great detriment of its customers, and the overall economy.

Peter Ferrara is Senior Fellow for Entitlement and Budget Policy at the Heartland Institute, a Senior Policy Advisor to the National Tax Limitation Foundation, and an attorney for the Energy and Environment Legal Institute. He served in the White House Office of Policy Development under President Reagan, and as Associate Deputy Attorney General of the United States under President George H.W. Bush.