Knives Out - Inside GNSS - Global Navigation Satellite Systems Engineering, Policy, and Design

Knives Out

The Federal Communications Commission should really consider updating its motto. “Firm, fast, flexible, and fair” has a bit of an old-fashioned ring. As mottos go, it fails to keep up with the times.

“Knives Out” would be so much better. More accurate, more in tune to what the FCC actually does: slice out bits of spectrum here and bits of spectrum there, to toss into the yawning maw of broadband, the Internet, Wi-Fi, whatever name can be put to this many-headed hydra.

Two recent FCC carve-ups come to the fore. The first is chronicled here: the admittance of powerful ground transmitters into a spectrum band that has long been reserved for much weaker satellite signals. All GNSS, not only GPS, about which the argument in the United States has raged, but all GNSS will suffer. Let us count the users and the critical infrastructures in their straits.

Following in short order on the stealthy gerrymandering of the satellite districts came a slash at the backside of the energy grid. The FCC also voted to open up 1,200MHz of spectrum in the 6GHz band for “unlicensed use.”

Basically this means Wi-Fi routers. The newly accessible spectrum quadruples the amount of space available for routers and other devices, meaning a lot more bandwidth for faster video streaming, Zoom meetings and the like.

Who got robbed? Or shall we say, taken? Utilities that heretofore used those frequencies to control pipelines and electric grids. Public safety lost out again. Google and Apple and Facebook and YouTube and Amazon and Netflix and Broadcom and Qualcomm and Intel and Comcast and T-Mobile rejoiced.

Next up, the automakers. Big Tech is not about to get fazed by Big Wheels.

In December, the FCC began a process to re- assign the lower 45MHz of spectrum in the 5.9 gigahertz band, previously allocated to vehicle- to-everything (infrastructure and other vehicles, commonly known as V2X). Whither will it be re-assigned? Why, to “unlicensed uses,” our new friend Wi-Fi. Just as connected car technology is about to come fully online to save lives, energy, time, resources, highway space and more, it will be relegated to a sliver of its former spectrum.

Cable companies and streaming services and massive app players, hungry for additional wireless bandwidth, swing a lot of cats in the FCC boardroom. So far, opposition by automakers and state and federal transportation officials, arguing the move will undercut road safety, has not found sympathetic ears at the agency.

The FCC has at the center of its name and its consciousness the word-concept of communications. Yet nothing about the radio frequency spectrum says communications and communications only. Radio waves can be and are used for many other purposes in addition to communication. Positioning, navigation and timing come to mind. So do transportation and energy and financial transactions.

K, so technically all of these things are communication of one kind or another: the exchange or transmission of data between two or more points. But they are not communication in the literal sense that the FCC and Big Tech see, and see only. So they become second-class citizens, with second-class treatment.

There’s a lot of money being made in Big Tech. FCC board members are very conscious of this, some of them intimately familiar with it from their prior work experience.

The fully unfettered right to make money, regardless of consequences to the public good or public safety, long an American tradition, has asserted itself supreme by now. In many realms.

The situation echoes another recent government edict that says public safety, worker safety be damned. Just keep the beef, pork and chicken coming.

Knives out.