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Focus on Regulation

Quiet Down? US Examines Whether Too Much Noise from Modern-Day Products Might Pose a Risk to Wireless Communications

The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) is seeking updated information on how the increased adoption of radiofrequency energy-emitting devices is affecting the level of unwanted RF energy emitted from man-made sources (the “spectrum noise floor”).[1]  The FCC’s Technological Advisory Council (“TAC”) has launched a technical inquiry to study changes to the spectrum noise floor over the past two decades, and the FCC has set August 11, 2016 as the deadline to submit information in response to the inquiry.[2]

A variety of licensed and unlicensed devices emit radiofrequency or RF energy.  “Incidental Radiators,” such as fluorescent lights, electric power tools and power lines, are not designed to generate or emit RF energy but do so as a result of their operations.[3]  “Unintentional Radiators,” such as computers and digital cameras, are designed to generate RF energy but not to emit it.[4]  Meanwhile, “Intentional Radiators,” such as cell phones, wireless routers and Bluetooth devices, are designed to both generate and emit RF energy.[5]  Good engineering practices and FCC regulations seek to limit the amount of RF energy these radiators emit, but the exponential growth in consumer adoption of these devices has raised concerns that the spectrum noise floor has risen over the past 20 years.[6]

The TAC is an advisory group to the FCC that operates under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.  The TAC is made up of leading technology experts from government, industry and academia as well as FCC staff.  Its mission is to help the FCC “identify important areas of innovation and develop informed technology policies supporting America’s competitiveness and job creation in the global economy.”[7]

According to the TAC, limited quantitative data is available to determine whether the spectrum noise floor has increased.[8]  The TAC is therefore asking several questions to formulate study areas and identify trends in the spectrum noise floor.  The TAC seeks comment on whether too much RF noise exists, and, if so, what frequency bands and spatial locations (indoor versus outdoor, cities versus rural areas) raise the most concern.[9]  The TAC also wants to know at what levels the noise floor starts to cause harmful interference to particular radio services.[10]

The TAC asks several questions about the logistics for studying the spectrum noise floor, including: what the focus of study should be; how to pay for a study; and the best methods to measure noise.[11]  The methodological issues raise interesting questions for carriers and manufacturers, including whether crowd-sourced information can identify RF noise as well as how to distinguish RF noise from the RF signals wireless operators, businesses and consumers use for communications.[12]

TAC members have good reason to investigate the current status of the spectrum noise floor based on the exponential growth in the number of cell phones, tablets, personal electronic devices and other RF energy-emitting devices over the past two decades.  Parties with information to contribute to the TAC should submit their information on or before August 11, 2016.  The FCC regularly looks to recommendations from the TAC when formulating new rules and regulations, and we expect the FCC will do so again based on the results of any technical inquiry the TAC ultimately conducts.

[1] See Office of Engineering and Technology Announces Technological Advisory Council (TAC) Noise Floor Technical Inquiry, Public Notice, ET Docket No. 16-191, DA 16-676 (OET June 15, 2016) (“Public Notice”).

[2] Id.

[3] 47 C.F.R. § 15.3(n).

[4] 47 C.F.R. § 15.3(z).

[5] 47 C.F.R. § 15.3(o).

[6] See generally Public Notice.

[7] See Technological Advisory Council – FCC, https://www.fcc.gov/general/technological-advisory-council (last visited June 16, 2016).

[8] Public Notice at 1.

[9] Public Notice at 2.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 2-3.

[12] Id. at 3.