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Workshop Summary: Technology/Wireless

August 19th, 2009 by Julius Knapps - Chief, Office of Engineering and Technology.


On Thursday we had a very interesting workshop on the role of wireless technology in offering fixed and mobile broadband access.  The workshop was divided into two panels.  The first panel discussed the status of mobile wireless and the second addressed the opportunities and challenges of serving rural users.  Everyone agreed that there is a continuing growth in demand for data services and a number of solutions are being worked on by the providers to try to meet expected demands.  Several wireless carriers and their providers are focusing on building out current 3G networks with HSPA technologies with plans to evolve to LTE technologies.  Others are moving rapidly to deploy WiMax for fixed and mobile applications.  To try to maximize frequency reuse and increase capacity, the providers are also deploying smaller cell sites (eg. micro- pico- and femto- cells are being used more commonly).  However, this also requires higher capacity back haul connections. All the panelists agreed that the back-haul ("middle mile") problem needs to be addressed.  The availability of fiber connections to such sites limits how quickly the networks will evolve.  The service providers in rural areas face the additional issues with getting cost-effective back-haul connections.  It is necessary to develop innovative technological and regulatory solutions to address this critical issue.

One other fundamental issue is that of obtaining more usable spectrum to address anticipated bandwidth demands.  However, panelists varied in their requests and proposals and no one identified specific spectrum requirements.  The carriers operating using licensed spectrum recommend international harmonization of spectrum to help drive the cost of equipment down.  Several rural providers that have developed innovative solutions using limited spectrum seek Commission involvement in getting access to more spectrum via secondary markets.  The operators offering services using unlicensed spectrum are recommending special recognition of their needs in the rules by creating better "light" licensing regimes and expanding the license-light concept to additional frequency bands.  For the longer term, some of the panelists presented ideas for opportunistic use of spectrum by using dynamic spectrum access techniques or learning from open access technology projects.  This also raised the possibility of networks based on streamlined and flexible designs of base stations (using software defined radios); device to device communications protocols and open access for devices to roam across multiple networks.  The panelists also challenged the Commission to investigate developing flexible technical rules which allow continuing technology innovation.

Fixed Broadband Workshop

The recently concluded Fixed Broadband Workshop brought together researchers, technology developers and business planners to discuss the current status of non-mobile or fixed broadband and its future potential.  The workshop was organized in two panel sessions.  One discussed Broadband Vision and the other Fixed Broadband Technologies.  Perhaps the most challenging consensus presented by the Broadband Vision panelists was that our need for broadband will continue to grow far beyond today's performance capabilities.  This was responded to by panelists from the Broadband Technologies session who indicated that for cable, fiber and DSL technologies, evolution strategies were in play to meet this challenge supporting bit rates an order of magnitude higher or more than at present.

Another challenging view presented was that utilization of broadband infrastructure should be maximized to ensure participation by the greatest number of innovators and that, to the fullest extent possible, the network should be transparent to the applications it supports.  As noted by one researcher, such transparency would further development of applications and lower barriers to use by individuals.  He also noted that as the nation becomes more dependent upon a broadband infrastructure, other factors such as reliability, security, etc. will need to be included in an evolving definition of broadband.  Towards this point, it was noted that research is advancing on new network constructs such as cloud computing and network virtualization.  Such constructs may permit the implementation of new network services and features far more easily than implementing them in the underlying broadband infrastructure and avoiding the upgrade issues associated with legacy infrastructure.

So-called "middle mile" costs were cited by one panelist as a significant impediment to broadband in rural areas and suggested that the Commission seek to address this issue.  He also noted that nearly half of the estimated seven million unserved homes in the US are already accessible by cable systems and that stimulus funds directed towards these small cable operators would be a very cost-effective solution.  In all, panelists presented an environment where technology can meet evolving broadband goals, but policy issues affecting the openness of the network, its capabilities and its ability to serve all the peoples of the nation will need to be addressed to realize broadband's full potential.

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