I warned on this space (page 4, May 2000) that the aviation industry’s battle to protect the frequency spectrum required for safe operations would leave no room for respite. But, admittedly, I didn’t realize then just how persistent the attempt to seize spectrum would be. I should have known better–for at stake is a commodity worth billions of dollars. Earlier this year, for example, a spectrum sale in the UK fetched nearly $40 billion. Money talks, the adage goes, and it appears that in these spectrum-hungry times, money may even drown out the call for safety.
In the May issue, I commented on the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) in Instanbul, Turkey. The WRC, ending in early summer, delivered good news to the aviation industry. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tagged the WRC a "100% success" in a post-conference report. Pierre Jeanniot, director general of the International Air Transport Association, praised the 2,600 WRC delegates from 130 countries for demonstrating "commendable farsightedness."
All existing aviation spectrum was protected at the WRC, and a majority of the delegates decided not to allow sharing of the Global Positioning System (GPS) band. Also, aeronautical HF frequencies were protected, and "spectrum go-ahead" was granted for GPS L5 implementation, according to the FAA report.
That’s the good news. Now for the news that’s not so good.
During the WRC, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) with an Oct. 30, 2000, deadline for comment and published test results. Essentially, the proposed rule would establish guidelines under which ultrawideband (UWB) products could be produced without first securing a license. Sounds fairly harmless–until you take a closer look at the NPRM’s timeframe and background.
Currently, unintentional UWB radiators such as garage door openers and some security systems are built and distributed under a Part 15 waiver issued by the FCC. To secure the wavier, a company must insure that its Part 15 product does not interfere with restricted frequency bands, such as for GPS.
However, pushing the NPRM are companies wanting to produce devices that intentionally radiate over a wide range, including into the GPS band. They argue that their products enter restricted bands within the FCC limits applied for the Part 15 waiver.
An example is a claim made by an Alabama-based company called Time Domain. It has a waiver to produce 2,500 UWB radar-vision devices, which are ground-penetrating and can literally see through walls. Their applications, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), are to track criminals, rescue victims trapped in buildings during disaster, and locate broken pipelines. The company argues that the power output is so fast and small that their devices radiate no more into the GPS band than unintentional radiators.
But do they? So far there are no firm data to determine the impact of products that are intentional UWB radiators. One FAA-sponsored study conducted by Stanford University strongly indicates that such products could interfere with the GPS signal. Not pleased with those results, Time Domain is financing its own study, by the University of Texas. Meanwhile, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) also is conducting an independent study at its Institute of Telecommunications Science in Bolder, Colo.
Study of UWB’s impact is essential, even encouraged by all parties involved in spectrum, because ultrawideband products may hold many benefits–to aviation, as well. Sensitive to the accusation by the UWB community that aviation simply wants to inhibit UWB’s potential, Capt. Russ Chew of American Airlines told congressmen in the House Subcommittee on Aviation in late June, "The aviation industry supports and encourages the development of new technologies…It may well be possible to harmonize the use of UWB technologies with GPS…"
But extensive study must come first. The main problem is the NPRM’s Oct. 30 deadline. An NTIA official says the deadline is "extremely tight."
"We don’t think the deadline gives the aviation community enough time to gather all the needed data," adds an FAA official.
Yet so much is at stake, especially since we don’t need to speculate on GPS’ potential; we know it has much to offer aviation and other industries, as well.
Other disturbing issues exist. For example, the unlicensed production of intentional UWB radiators may be accompanied by restriction of their use, but how would the restrictions be enforced? How, for example, would authorities track these devices to assure that they are not used near airports? Also, the aircraft user community has invested heavily in GPS; will the investment be compromised, or lost?
But perhaps most disturbing about the NPRM and its tight deadline for comment and test results is the blatant display of lobbying clout to push the proposed rule forward. In other words, how much money talks. For example, according to the WSJ, Time Domain is a "tiny" company that took in only $700,000 in sales last year. But it spent $720,000 to lobby lawmakers and regulators. Indeed, this lopsided investment in a lobbying effort has politicized the issue of spectrum allocation to the degree that even some UWB companies feel uncomfortable. Even they are concerned that political clout may trump air transportation safety?