How CMI’s Multidisciplinary Education Can Help Policymakers Address 5G Spectrum Challenges
While the notion of 5G, fifth generation mobile standard, may be relatively new, debates about how to allocate the radio spectrum are not. Former Federal Communication Commission Chief Economist Thomas Hazlett’s The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone details the conflicts over public and private spectrum allocation that have been ongoing for more than a century. He notes, “Even after taking decades to craft cellular telephone rules, the FCC had no idea that mobile would become a mass market (not a luxury niche), that handsets would become pocket (not car) phones, that texting and data (not just voice) would become standard, or that digital was superior to the analog standard it mandated.” The Ajit Pai-led FCC is determined to avoid the mistakes of the past in which valuable technologies were delayed for decades. A multidisciplinary approach can help. Used to solve difficult problems and address complex issues, notably in public health, the diseases of poverty, and other areas of medicine, multidisciplinary approaches combine different disciplines and diverse perspectives to illustrate an issue.
The Center for Communication, Media and Information Technologies (CMI) at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, Denmark focuses on multidisciplinary approaches for telecommunications policy. CMI’s founder Knud Erik Skouby, author on many multidisciplinary academic papers on 5G (exploring 5G and privacy, millennials, the elderly, emerging countries among other topics) explains, “The cross-disciplinary research and teaching at CMI address the interplay between technology on the ICT area and socio-economic developments including user, market and governance issues. The focus is on the understanding of and participation in value creation based on ICT through innovative development of new applications, services and solutions serving the needs of private and professional users, organizations and society.”
Many CMI faculty and PhD graduates have distinguished careers in telecom regulation and policy. Emeritus Professor William H. Melody was the FCC’s chief economist during the breakup of Ma Bell. PhD graduate Lara Srivastava is now head of New Initiatives and Emerging Tech at the International Telecommunications Union, the global body where governments of the world coordinate spectrum policy. She edited the Telecommunications Regulation Handbook published by the ITU, World Bank, and infoDev which observes,
“Historically, accessing and using radio spectrum has been highly regulated, in order to prevent interference amongst various users in adjacent frequency bands. Since 2000, there has been significant innovation in the theory and practice of spectrum regulation. There is now a growing consensus that past and current regulatory practices have delayed the introduction and growth of beneficial technologies and services or have artificially increased costs. As a result, there is a renewed emphasis on striking the best possible balance between certainty of administrative approaches and the flexibility of more light-handed market-based regulation…In a globalizing world with rapid technological innovation and increasing demand for radio frequencies, effective spectrum policy should promote the roll-out of services, reduce barriers of entry, and promote innovation.”
Here are four benefits of the multidisciplinary approach and what it means for telecom policy.
- Creative solutions. The introduction of different perspectives, ideas, and approaches can help envision creative solutions to problems. For example, wanting to address concerns of select stakeholders about broadband traffic and pricing and to demonstrate to authorities the value of self-regulation when no government policy was in place, Danish telecom operators formed the Net Neutrality Forum in which they engaged in multi-stakeholder dialogue and performed to a set of standards for transparency and quality. This regime significantly outperformed Netherlands’ heavy-handed internet regulation as measured by the number of “edge provider” mobile applications produced during the period of 2010-2016.
- Identifying needed information. While multidisciplinary approaches don’t automatically provide an answer, they are helpful to identify what information is needed to address the problem. Senator Mike Lee should be applauded for his bill which supports making an economic valuation of federally owned spectrum. There are many important objectives for the federal government to use radio spectrum and having a better understanding of government users and uses would inform the policy discussion.
- Operating with little to no information. It can also be the case that there isn’t good information, particularly with questions about the future. Essentially we don’t know the value of certain technologies until they are given a chance. This is it the argument that underpins permissionless innovation: Allow experimentation with technologies and deal with problems if and when they come. This is not to say that there are never technological problems or that ante government intervention is never warranted, but on balance, technology has made the world better. When asked what has brought the biggest improvement to their lives in the past 50 years, Americans name technology more than any other advancement, notes Pew Research in a 2016 survey. This is also an argument to support the C-Band Alliance proposal by satellite operators that want to sell their spectrum rights to 5G mobile operators. Their proposal would get 200 MHz of valuable mid-band “Goldilocks” spectrum in operation in 2-3 years via a secondary market transaction versus waiting 7-10 years for an auction.
- Critical thinking. Multidisciplinary approaches also support critical thinking, the analysis needed to form a judgement. The history of innovation is littered with examples of entrenched interests opposing new technologies; consider how regulated taxi monopolies fight against ride sharing. As if on cue with each new generation of mobile technologies, claims suddenly emerge that radio communication causes cancer and other maladies. Multiple interdisciplinary studies in Denmark show definitively that mobile phone use is not associated with an increase risk of tumors. The studies could be performed because all Danes have a Social Security number, all mobile phone number are linked to Social Security numbers; all Danes with cancer are registered in the National Cancer Registry, and the Danes without cancer can also be studied by mobile phone and Social Security number.
Many CMI graduate students come from different telecom authorities to study with the multidisciplinary team in Denmark. It’s a model that the US should investigate.