We need to rethink our attitude to spectrum pricing, argues ATDI’s Managing Director Cyprien de Cosson. Those users with the greatest claim on the airwaves should have sufficient interference-free spectrum, while less important users should be made to share.

The business of deciding who gets access to what spectrum has, until very recently, resisted the pressures to conform to the capitalist model. Slowly, though, price is becoming the arbiter to secure protection from harmful interference. We now embrace the idea that with payment we secure spectrum usage rights; a slight misnomer but in essence we acquire a degree of freedom to operate such wireless systems as we determine within agreed constraints. The idea of payment, however, sits badly with some. In the public service and in the military the notion that a local commander has a pot of cash that he uses to buy spectrum for his men is, for many, just ridiculous. So is there another metric that has the same power as hard cash and if there is, how might it drive who gets access to what?

Spectrum access (in order to achieve some purpose) is important to a local commander. Access is limited by the size of the block of spectrum needed and by the quality of that block. Conceptually, the more important the mission, the larger the block and the better the quality that might be allotted. This idea could also apply to the civil sector, too. Clearly, the emergency services would be a priority in this scheme, but commercial companies deemed to be providing a service in the public interest – mobile phone companies, perhaps – would also get first bite at the cherry.

Changes in technology now mean that users experience interference differently: the need to de-conflict is history replaced instead with a grey-scale of quality of service.

Conversely, the lower the importance, the more sharing that could be forced on users. They still have use of the spectrum but they enjoy a lower quality of service as a result of their lower relative position. This argument leads to a simple method of spectrum allotment for public service and military users. Provided that the probability of successful use of the spectrum is greater than the probability required by the commander, that spectrum can be assigned for that mission. Such probability depends on all the unwanted emissions received but it can be quantified. Probability of success is the new metric. What then is its advantage over traditional methods?

Traditional methods of spectrum allotment had two failings. The first was that they treated all those asking for spectrum with the same relative importance. The second was that they attempted to de-conflict allotments, thereby keeping users completely separate. Changes in technology now mean that users experience interference differently: the need to de-conflict is history replaced instead with a grey-scale of quality of service. Mission importance can now drive spectrum access thereby guaranteeing everyone some service. Those higher up the pecking order get the cleanest spectrum and some would argue that is just as it should be.

Regulatory structures

So, if price is the issue, who would be collecting the money and handing out the resources in return? That is a question for the politicians to answer but it is conceivable they could keep the responsibility in the hands of government or give it to a regulator. The sole issue would be that the people responsible are neutral and dispassionate and seen by all parties to be fair. This kind of market approach works only when everybody believes in the even-handedness of the system, so it would be essential that the allocating body is trusted.

And just what would this body be allocating? Well, it would be inherent in the system that the government or regulator would be able to allocate more resources to the commercial sector than are now available. A pricing system would encourage military commanders to take stock of what they have and divest themselves of that which they don’t need. At present, because the military is not operating on the same market-based footing as commercial companies, they do not have profit and loss to spur them into being more efficient and slimming down their needs.

A commander who had to go to his chief and justify his monthly expenditure on spectrum – and also justify the impact that outlay would have on other areas of his budget – would then have a powerful incentive for him to ask the question: “Do I really need all the resources allocated to me?” It would be a shock if the answer to that was a universal: “Yes.”

Resources put into the commercial pot by the military would then go to companies on the same basis as resources in all markets: you get what you pay for.


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