Federal Communications Commission

Connecting America’s Stories: What is Spectrum

June 16th, 2010 by Page Schindler Buchanan

This is the first in a series of three posts discussing spectrum, the National Broadband Plan and your stories.

Spectrum.  It’s an issue that is getting lots of attention from consumers and conglomerates alike.  It affects our phone data plans, TV broadcasting and wireless connection speeds.

This is important stuff, this spectrum.  So what the heck is it?

Check out this video for an introduction to spectrum.
Tom Peters, Chief Engineer, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau at the FCC, explains:

Spectrum is the collection of radio waves, up to visible light.  In between very low frequency spectrum and light there is a whole range of spectrum that is available for transmitting information over. 

That spectrum is broken up into what we call “bands.”  One you might be familiar with is the FM radio tuner in your car.  That band, as the numbers on the dial will indicate, goes from 88 megahertz to 108 megahertz – and that is a slice of this large range of spectrum that’s available for transmitting information.

You might be wondering, what is a megahertz? What do we mean by that?  Radio waves all travel at the speed of light, so they’re all going the same speed.

The time it takes for the crest of each wave to pass by, that’s the frequency.

A hertz is one over seconds (1/seconds).  When you are listening to a station at 88 megahertz – mega means million – you’re getting 88 million crests of these waves coming at you every second.  Just like light, radio waves exist at all frequencies. 

So when you tune your radio, make a cell phone call, or use wireless internet, you are tapping into a particular wavelength of the spectrum.  In the Information Age, these waves are becoming increasingly important.

Tom talks about the many different ways Americans use our spectrum:

FM radio is one use…AM radio is another use, and your cell phone is another use, the federal government has lots of uses: the Department of Defense, weather balloons transmit information, there’s satellite communications that need to be enabled...  what the FCC does is manage all the commercial uses of spectrum.  And what NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Agency) does is manage all the federal uses of spectrum. 

Right now, the spectrum is all chopped up and allocated for many different uses, the product of an entire century of changing technologies and market needs.  A major issue now is that there isn’t enough left for the new technology that is rapidly growing and changing almost every facet of American life: Mobile Broadband.

Tom Peters:

A particular spectrum – UHF – the Ultra High Frequency band, is commonly referred to in the press as “Beachfront” spectrum … It just turns out that the UHF spectrum is right in that sweet spot [for mobile phones], where you can build a device of a reasonable size and have reasonable power and have reasonable battery life and you get the benefit of having great propagation characteristics – meaning it travels far and it travels in buildings, through walls very well, so you get very good coverage.

Just yesterday the FCC released a paper called Spectrum Analysis: Options for Broadcast Spectrum that details ideas for repurposing spectrum.

The stories you have shared with are the most eloquent argument for making sure spectrum is allocated as efficiently as possible. 

Richard in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

As a first responder, having reliable wireless data communications is necessary when responding to an event and a large amount of data has to be moved or information garnered about the area and what is being dealt with. This could also involve sending pictures, text, information files, etc., by wireless.

Victor in Pahrump, Nevada

I am the WiFi chairman for the "Pair-A-Dice" RV Park. We are among the millions of RVers who depend upon internet access for managing our financial, business, and personal affairs. We have 48 WiFi users on our little in-park Lucky85 WiFi system.

If we don’t find enough spectrum to support all of the information we want to send and receive over mobile phones and wireless internet, we will stagnate.  Prices will rise even higher.  Connections will get slower.  Calls will be dropped. Innovation will decline.

Stay tuned for our next post, where we discuss The National Broadband Plan’s recommendations on how to handle spectrum for a future of current and yet unimagined technological advances. And please keep sharing your stories with us.


2 Responses to “Connecting America’s Stories: What is Spectrum”

  1. Guest says:

    TO: United States Congress
    Senate Energy Committee
    House Energy and Commerce Committee
    Washington, D.C.

    RE: National Broadband Plan

    June 18, 2010

    Dear Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

    I understand the Committee has taken an interest in the recent actions (GN Docket No. 09-51 and related proceedings) of the Federal Communications Commission with regard to its National Broadband Plan. Members of the Committee, there's a vast amount of spectrum available in the SHF spectrum (3 to 30 GHz), readily available broadband equipment which is much smaller than UHF equipment, and antennas which allow for a much greater signal footprint at lower cost. Moreover, SHF won't require displacing thousands to tens of thousands of current telecommunications employees while this plan is being built out.

    The need for the FCC to take this action is dubious at best in that 47 CFR Sections 73.624(c, g) and 74.790(i) already permit broadcast television, low power television, and television translator stations to offer broadband services via their carriers. Given that current regulations already permit wireless broadband in this fashion over the entire TV broadcast spectrum, there's no need to reallocate spectrum between 470-698 MHz and the damage the FCC's digital conversion already has done to the industry requires a lengthy period to recoup investments. In basic fairness, the current proposal is bad for jobs and bad for broadcasters during an election year. In conclusion, I beg the Committee to consider my twenty-eight years' experience in telecommunications, including military, government, commercial, and private sector telecommunications when I implore the Committee to ask FCC to drastically alter the trajectory of its National Broadband Plan. In advance, I thank you and wish you and yours...

    Kindest regards,

    /s./ James Edwin Whedbee, M.Ed.
    Owner: KZJW-LD, TV-23

  2. Fred McTaker says:

    Spectrum is a particular color of invisible (to humans) light. Light has the same basic properties, no matter what the frequency. Radio interference is a myth. Saying that two radio towers transmitting on the same frequency/channel are "interfering" is the same as saying two red lights in the same room are "interfering," even as each light is discernible from the other with the human eye, and casts distinct shadows and reflections within the room.

    Current FCC radio spectrum policy is akin to discovering a bacteria that can sense light but not its direction, and thereafter forcing all other forms of life to ignore the fact that they can discern light sources of the same color, by relative position and proximity. The FCC would have us humans cast out our miracles of biology -- the light seeing eye -- so that this bacteria can retain the advantage. The lack of *vision* in the FCC is appalling, in all senses of the word.

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