The Catholic University of America

The second morning panel on Feb. 26., L-R: Dr. Darlene Drazenovich, National Telecommunications and Information Association; John Giusti, acting chief, International Bureau, FCC; Suzanne Hutchings Malloy, senior VP, ICO Global Communications; Julie Zoller, Radio Regulations Board, International Telecommunications Union; and Steve Sharkey, senior director of regulatory and spectrum policy, Motorola. CUA law Professor Donna Gregg moderated the discussion from the podium.

A Traffic Cop for Spectrum

In ensuring there is enough bandwidth space available for the ever-increasing number of wireless communications devices that Americans eagerly purchase, should the government's regulatory touch be a light caress, a steady pressure or an iron grip?

Nearly two dozen speakers spent a day examining the question from different angles on Feb. 26 at a symposium titled "Interference: Wireless Innovation, Public Interest, Regulatory Response," sponsored by Catholic University's CommLaw Conspectus: Journal of Communications Law and Policy, the Institute for Communications Law Studies and the Federal Communications Bar Association.

Divided into two morning and two afternoon panels, experts from government, consumer groups, the telecommunications industry and academia discussed many of the hottest telecom issues at play today. The remarks centered upon a larger question: What is the appropriate regulatory response to increased innovation in the provision of wireless service and development of wireless devices, given increased demand for use of spectrum in the public interest?

The frequencies that can effectively transmit wireless signals are finite. For decades, radio and television staked the biggest claim upon spectrum, with portions of it reserved for things such as military communications systems.

Today, however, cell phones, Blackberries, mobile laptops, remote garage door openers and dozens of other wireless devices all require spectrum to operate. The government's traditional role as allocator of spectrum among different industries and competing demands has been compared to that of a traffic cop in a busy intersection, trying to help everyone get where they're going without causing a major pileup.

Meredith Attwell Baker

Most of the participants agreed with Meredith Attwell Baker, former acting assistant secretary for Communications and Information, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the symposium's keynote speaker, who stated, "A broadband national policy is the most important thing on the telecom list."

The day's first panel considered the widely advertised national transition to digital television that was scheduled for February, 2009. The deadline has now been pushed back at least four months, "because there was real concern that people weren't ready," in the words of one panelist as she described the government's system of coupons for converter boxes that has confused many consumers.

The morning's second panel considered America's involvement in international spectrum policy and management, and discussed issues such as the global harmonization of advanced broadband wireless, public safety, national defense, climate research, and other important services.

Afternoon speakers debated spectrum allocation in the digital age and whether to use periodic government auctions of spectrum space to private industry to achieve social policy goals.

While speakers disagreed, sometimes vociferously, about the best way for government to continue to referee the exploding telecom field, no one could argue with Baker's observation that "there's going to be a lot of work [in this field], because this great industry keep on innovating."