Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Who gets the apple?

I’ve been looking for a metaphor to illustrate the weaknesses I see in the FCC’s “you two just go off and coordinate” approach to solving wireless interference problems among operators.

Let's think of the responsibility to bear the cost of harmful interference as an apple.*  It’s as if the FCC says to Alice and Bob, “I've got an apple, and it belongs to one of you. I’m not going to decide which of you should have the apple; you decide among yourselves.”

Now, if Alice were the owner of the apple and valued it at 80 cents, then the answer would simply depend on how much Bob valued having the apple (and rational negotiation, of course). If having an apple was worth 90 cents to him, he’d get it for some price between 80 and 90 cents; if it was worth only 60 cents to him, Alice would keep it. Problem solved.

Trouble is, the FCC doesn’t tell them who actually owns the apple, and even if it did, it doesn’t tell them whether it’s a Granny Smith or a Gala. The odds of Alice and Bob coming to an agreement without going back to the FCC is slim.

The analogy: The FCC’s rules often don’t make clear who’s responsible, in the end, for solving a mutual interference problem (i.e. who owns the apple); and it’s impossible to know short of a rule making by the FCC what amounts to harm (i.e. what kind of apple it is).

* There's always interference between two nearby radio operators (near in geography or frequency).  While the blame is usually laid on the transmitter operator, it can just as reasonably be placed on the receiver operator for not buying better equipment that could reject the interference.

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