News Feature | December 5, 2017

GAO Warns FCC That IoT Growth Could Lead To Spectrum Congestion

By Jof Enriquez
Follow me on Twitter @jofenriq

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The United States Government Accountability Office (U.S. GAO) urges the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to monitor the increasing number of high bandwidth and unlicensed-spectrum devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT). GAO says this would give FCC a leg up in ensuring adequate radio frequency (RF) spectrum is available for all stakeholders.

In response to growing spectrum needs, FCC has made additional spectrum publicly available at least four times since 2015 by repurposing over 11 gigahertz of spectrum, and it continues to open more frequencies. So far, the agency is perceived to have done a commendable job in ensuring efficient use of the spectrum.

However, GAO says that FCC does not track the growth of IoT devices in two areas that pose the greatest risk to IoT’s growth — high bandwidth and unlicensed spectrum devices — despite its own Technical Advisory Council (TAC) recommending in 2014 to start increased monitoring. Failure to anticipate industry needs could limit the growth of IoT, and the economic benefits it promises to bring, according to the congressional watchdog.

Even though FCC monitors spectrum use broadly and makes spectrum available as needed, reallocating spectrum is a time-consuming process that might not be able to keep in step with the explosive growth in the number of IoT devices, states the GAO report.

Therefore, GAO, through a report based on documents and interviews from FCC, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and 24 officials from the government, commercial and manufacturing sectors, recommends for the Chairman of FCC to begin to track: (1) the growth in high bandwidth IoT devices, such as video-streaming devices and optical sensors, and, (2) the growth in IoT devices relying on unlicensed spectrum.

Monitoring those areas should help FCC prevent interference between systems operating on adjacent bands, and ensure that high bandwidth devices do not overwhelm certain networks, just as cellular networks began to experience congestion when smartphones were introduced, reports Nextgov.

FCC believes that the measures are unnecessary. Nevertheless, it is asking TAC to periodically review and report on the growth of IoT, which some experts project to number about 25–50 billion devices competing for finite spectrum by 2025.

Agency officials told GAO that FCC has and will continue to identify new spectrum "on both a licensed and unlicensed basis to meet the needs of IoT and other wireless devices."

"For example, in the past few years we conducted successful AWS-3 and TV Incentive auctions, established a Citizen's Broadband Radio Service, and provided access to nearly 11 GHz of spectrum in our Spectrum Frontiers proceeding," FCC stated in comments submitted to GAO. "Any of the spectrum bands made available through these actions could be used for IoT."

GAO reports that most stakeholders interviewed believe, despite the potential for a shortage of spectrum for IoT devices, "there should not be specific spectrum set aside for IoT devices; rather, some noted spectrum policies should remain flexible, allowing licensees to determine the best use."

FCC acknowledges that the exponential growth in wireless services and devices, along with the same trend anticipated in IoT devices, "has contributed to interference becoming more of a challenge for FCC."

However, the agency says it will continue a strategy of "technology neutral planning," which allows spectrum users to develop technologies for the spectrum and not have FCC dictate its specific use.

GAO notes that authorities in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and South Korea have used a similar approach to spectrum planning because it "encourages innovation as it allows developers to choose the most appropriate spectrum bands for new technology without having to take the extra step of getting regulators’ permission for each new device or application."