Research Agenda for Spectrum Management

Research Agenda for Spectrum Management

Dr. David Reed

University of Colorado Boulder

This past month of May I had the pleasure to co-teach with Dale Hatfield a graduate course at the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder on Spectrum Management and Policy. For those of you who don’t know Dale, he has been a leader in the U.S. for several decades at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration in developing and implementing innovative, new approaches to spectrum management. The class was composed of master’s level electrical engineering and cybersecurity students along with first-year law students, which presented the unique opportunity to address spectrum management problems with an interdisciplinary curriculum incorporating technology, economics, and public policy components.

This teaching experience with Dale, and his encyclopedic knowledge of spectrum regulation, gave me the opportunity to learn more about the significant progress made in spectrum management over the past decade and then to reflect on the current problems facing the research community in developing more efficient and effective use of spectrum to meet societal objectives.

At the risk of over-simplifying, and to keep this discussion brief, here is a short list of current interesting interdisciplinary problems that we addressed during our graduate class that I believe merits ongoing or further research attention:

  1. Spectrum sharing technologies. The tools available to regulators to facilitate the sharing of spectrum between different services using technical and service rules are increasingly being put to use over the past 5 years. Automated Frequency Coordination systems, Dynamic Spectrum Access, and Shared Access Systems are new approaches to ease coexistence and reduce harmful interference. Research will be needed on how well these systems perform and how new technologies such as artificial intelligence or other data analytics approaches might be employed to improve performance.
  2. Licensed versus Unlicensed Debate. Spectrum management has moved on from the Command and Control model to predominantly licensed and unlicensed models. Licensed spectrum now provides license holders much greater flexibility in terms of the services that can be offered and the ability to, for example, lease spectrum to others. Unlicensed spectrum allows substantial service flexibility as well subject to limitations on transmit power level. But is this the end game for spectrum management models or will it be possible to continue the evolution to incorporate hybrid licensed/unlicensed models or even new models that push the openness of access for equipment and service providers alike? Additional research in new types of technical and service rules, auction design and standardization of additional software interfaces could uncover novel spectrum managements models to address additional policy objectives for competition.
  3. Mobile broadband (5G) Driving New Spectrum Allocations. In somewhat unprecedented fashion, countries throughout the world are racing to deploy more spectrum to support the next generation of mobile broadband technology. While proactive efforts to support 5G spectrum requirements is certainly laudatory, these spectrum allocation decisions could be locking in potential rigidities in the form of legacy laws and service rules unless licensing flexibility is maintained and expanded. An exciting development in broadband availability has been the emergence of low-cost wireless solutions for hard-to-reach areas. How this dynamic mix of local access network options plays out over time, and is linked with government-sponsored universal service programs or national broadband plans, is another area of rich research potential that needs to be better understood by regulators. 
  4. Emerging Role of Risk Management. There now appears to be a role for risk management as part of spectrum management efforts, though it has yet to be fully defined. Based on contributions from Dale and others at Silicon Flatirons at CU Boulder, the FCC has been considering the use of risk-informed interference assessments that take into account receiver performance in order to consider the level of harm resulting from interference. Similarly, given that wireless networks represent critical infrastructure for society, the FCC’s Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council recommended the use of a voluntary, risk management framework for mobile service providers to guide cybersecurity mitigation efforts. Continuing the research to develop and implement these frameworks in these contexts is necessary to further integrate key risk management and risk communication concepts into spectrum regulations.

Obviously, this is not a full list of pressing research topics on spectrum policy; there are many others that can be added to this list. The important point here is that the increasing importance of mobile communications to meet societal connectivity objectives continues to elevate the importance and urgency of ongoing research into new and improved spectrum management models and tools. 

One of the goals of GTPRN is to provide a networking forum for researchers to discuss, develop and coordinate research agendas of topics of current significance to the global technology policy community. While it is not clear how best to proceed, GTPRN may be a useful platform to start or reignite this conversation on an international basis. Perhaps a meet-up at a future TPRC, ITS or Silicon Flatirons conference?


David Reed is currently a Scholar in Residence. Prior to joining CU, Dr. Reed was the Chief Strategy Officer at Cable Television Laboratories where he led large R&D projects covering a wide range of technologies relevant to the cable industry such as application platforms, business services, voice-over-IP, and broadband delivery systems. Dr. Reed also has been a Telecommunications Policy Analyst in the Office of Plans and Policy at the Federal Communications Commission where he worked on cable-telco competition, personal communications services (PCS), and spectrum auction policies.  Dr. Reed has authored a book on residential fiber optic networks, and is a widely published author in telecommunications journals, books, and magazines. He has been an author of interdisciplinary analyses that played key roles in defining U.S. policy debates on PCS spectrum allocation and local access competition.

Dr. Reed holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Colorado State University, an MS in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and PhD in Engineering and Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

3 thoughts on “Research Agenda for Spectrum Management”

  1. David, this is a good list but want to flag that when we look at these issues we must not forget non-mobile technologies as well as non-terrestrial technologies. Both must be taken into account in order to take a holistic approach. I fear that this proposed research agenda is a bit focused on the mobile side, which, while important, will not solve the digital divide on 5G.

    1. Hi Jennifer,
      I do agree with you that in many of our research we focus on 5G as the sole technology for connection although it is not even the only mobile technology that we can count on. I am sure you are aware of other work in the ITU on other mobile technologies that can enable connectivity (WP 5A)
      There are also fixed technologies that can overcome the digital divide (WP5C).
      To this end, usually overlooked is the role of the satellite industry which is partially related to the evacuation of C-band for 5G and also the recent bad news from several big companies (e.g. Oneweb).
      I hope you can suggest other topics to be included in that promising research agenda suggested by Dr David on spectrum management that address the satellite industry.

      1. Yes, I would suggest we look at the role of non-terrestrial technologies in 5G and beyond (we are already studying 6G in the ITU and other bodies).

Leave a Reply