FCC commissioners today launched proceedings that would explore a relatively new world of wireless communications, one in which network gear and devices are able to spot temporarily fallow spectrum and use it in a blink of an eye before clearing off the frequency in time for a dedicated user to access the airwaves.

Known as dynamic spectrum access, such capabilities are the subject of a notice of proposed rulemaking and a complementary notice of inquiry that were approved unanimously with little fanfare or controversy — in fact, neither item warranted a question being asked in the press conference that followed the FCC meeting. However, the comments and resulting FCC actions in these proceedings should be monitored by all members of the wireless industry, because they promise to strike at the core issues facing the sector and its future.

In the proposed rulemaking, the FCC proposes to create experimental licenses that would allow those developing the next generation of wireless technologies greater flexibility in testing the capabilities of potential breakthroughs. Meanwhile, in the notice of inquiry, the FCC is seeking comments on broad array of policies and technical capabilities associate with dynamic spectrum access.

While the concept of dynamic spectrum access has been an interesting talking point at trade conferences for years, research by the military suggests that such systems not only are possible but also promise to be affordable. In addition, commercial vendors such as xG Technology are trumpeting the available of existing systems that utilize cognitive-radio capabilities to avoid interference and enhance reliability — claims that the U.S. Army will be testing during the next several months.

If the promise of dynamic spectrum access can be harnessed in an economically viable manner, the implications are massive. Having secondary access to spectrum — especially if we’re talking about a large swath of airwaves — may not be such a terrible idea for non-mission-critical services. Meanwhile, cash-strapped entities may see secondary spectrum leasing as an easy way to make money without impacting existing operations.

Eventually, if dynamic spectrum access is successful, the FCC may want to revamp the way spectrum is allocated entirely. Some have gone so far as to propose a world in which there is no dedicated spectrum, just devices and networks that hop around finding open slices of airwaves on which to operate.

Frankly, my small-minded brain has a hard time envisioning such a “Wild, Wild West” spectrum vision, especially where mission-critical communications are involved. However, for applications where best-effort connectivity will suffice — particularly where customers value low price points most—it’s not hard to imagine such policies being something that spectrum-starved service providers would support.

Of course, if dynamic-spectrum-access technologies were developed to a point where they statistically could provide high levels of reliability, spectrum could become a commodity accessible by any individual or company, instead of a scarce resource available only to those with billions of dollars to invest before beginning a network deployment. Wouldn’t that be a different model for existing industry giants and Congress to contemplate?

It’s doubtful that this proceeding will result in concrete conclusions to such big-picture concepts being reached, but it’s entirely appropriate for the FCC to begin a discussion on a wireless future that could be considerable different than the present.

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