FCC: Lazy Or Just Lackadaisical? (Part 2)

Recently the FCC granted a waiver for ReconRobotics, a company that is offering a remote controlled robot to be used by law enforcement to perform reconnaissance in dangerous areas during tactical response situations. The robot sends analog video back to equipment giving personnel a remote-controlled view of an area.

The robot seems like a very clever product that will undoubtedly be successful and save lives in coming years.  The only problem is the company requested to use three 6 Mhz channels with the amateur radio 440 Mhz band.  Amateur radio has secondary privileges in this band which is primarily allocated to the Federal radiolocation service, which the PAVE PAWS system operates under.

Though it may not be obvious, the FCC's granting of the waiver has some parallels with the Broadband over Powerline (BPL) situation from a few years ago.  From a technical standpoint ReconRobotics couldn't be more different than BPL.  BPL radio emissions were just a spectral pollution byproduct of a wired network that blanketed the HF spectrum.  The ReconRobotics product actually uses the airwaves for transmitting information and uses set frequencies in the UHF spectrum.  What is quite similar is that the FCC allowed an unlicensed service to use licensed spectrum in a way that is not beneficial to either licensed or unlicensed users.  Both BPL and ReconRobotics provide a valuable service to the public, Internet access and support for law enforcement.  Although this may ruffle some feathers in the radio artisan community, it's arguable that these services are more valuable than amateur radio.  (Ignore for a moment BPL isn't actually using the frequencies, but is polluting them.)  Operating under Part 15 rules, BPL operators had to shut down operations if it interfered with licensed services like amateur radio.  As we learned from FCC actions (or rather inactions) this wasn't going to be enforced to the letter of the law and BPL systems would be allowed to interfere with amateur radio for months or years.  It just wasn't realistic to expect a for-profit business to turn off tens or hundreds of customers to investigate or stop interference, and the FCC quietly let the BPL industry off the hook.

In the ReconRobotics request it was acknowledged that a robot video system would be required to shut down if it interfered with licensed operations such as amateur radio.  But we all know that this is just not practical or realistic.  No law enforcement officer is going to shut down a robot during an enforcement event because it is interfering with amateur radio, nor would it be advisable or justified for an radio amateur to complain about reconnaissance robot interference.  But even worse, if an amateur radio operator transmitting interfered with a robot on a mission, it's likely that the event would be reported on by local media and would it put amateur radio in a bad light.  Overall it's a bad situation for all involved.

It's obvious the FCC still hasn't learned from BPL and has some things backwards.  Important services like data networks or communications for law enforcement need to be in licensed and/or dedicated spectrum, not shoehorned in with quite dissimilar licensed services as an unlicensed squatter that will ultimately demand and garner licensed allocation type protection and privileges.  Unfortunately it looks like this unlicensed / de facto licensed arrangement is going to be more common in coming years if the FCC continues to sidestep real spectrum management.
Anthony Good, K3NG, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Pennsylvania, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

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