FCC's broadband plan critiqued as overly broad, unfeasible

Some analysts wonder whether Congress will even deal with the issue

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The need for more spectrum to support exploding data demands is widely accepted, although at least one idea from Genachowski for using scarce spectrum more efficiently came under fire as being too futuristic.

His idea, also mentioned in the New America Foundation speech, envisions computer databases that can dynamically enable or revoke access to spectrum in particular times and places. While Genachowski didn't name the technology, Seybold said he was likely talking about a futuristic concept called "cognitive radio" which uses servers and client devices to search for an available spectrum channel to transmit and receive data.

For example, a TV station might say its licensed spectrum is available in a specific city between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., while another station would offer spectrum space from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. A database could then the radios inside cell phones or other devices to connect to a specific channel at a specific time.

"Technically, cognitive radio sounds really cool and would really help with spectrum needs," Seybold said, noting that companies like Spectrum Bridge Inc. are innovating in the field. "It's really interesting and has a lot of merit in the future, but we're not nearly ready for that. It will take a generation or more to get there...."

Gold said that users would also need devices that can access the various channels easily. "The database would have to be kept up to date. And frequency hopping on radios is not so easy -- and that adds cost," he said.

Stofega said spectrum constraints will be difficult to overcome, even if the FCC can get TV broadcasters to relinquish unused spectrum. "Even though Genachowski wants to spike a lot of innovation with compression technologies and squeezing out more spectrum, you can't keep making up spectrum," he said.

Radio experts at companies such as Qualcomm Inc. have talked in recent years about the Shannon Bound, a theorem popularized by electronic engineer Claude Shannon in the 1940s that establishes a boundary on the maximum amount of error-free digital data that can be transmitted within a specified bandwidth, Stofega said. "The point is that you can spend more money innovating and get less in terms of efficiency, and people are starting to see the end of what's possible."

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