Focus on Innovation, Delivery of Services Supplants Controversy at FCC Meeting

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Key Development:  

The FCC adopted a Report and Order allocating spectrum and setting technical rules for medical micropower networks, an implanted wireless technology to restore sensation and mobility to disabled limbs.

Potential Impact:  

The stimulatory implant technology has been shown to allow paralyzed individuals to stand, to enable stroke victims to regain the use of their hands, and to restore damaged neural pathways over time.

Robert Emeritz  

Taking a brief respite from recent controversial items like the AT&T/T-Mobile merger and the Universal Service order, the Federal Communications Commission announced two innovative initiatives at its monthly meeting Nov. 30.

The Commission first unanimously adopted a Report and Order allocating 24 MHz of spectrum in the 413-457 MHz band and setting technical rules for medical micropower networks. The Report and Order enables deployment of a new generation of wideband implanted devices that can restore sensation and mobility to paralyzed limbs and other parts of the body.

Office of Engineering and Technology Chief Julius Knapp described the devices as a transformative medical technology that could enable paraplegics to stand, allow stroke patients to use their hands, and address other medical conditions not susceptible to pharmaceutical treatment. The presenters and the chairman highlighted the networks' potential utility for wounded military veterans.

The devices were said to be safer and more effective than existing forms of treatment, capable not only of standing in for damaged neural pathways, but of restoring them over time.

The devices operate using low power and take advantage of the selected spectrum's favorable signal characteristics. The band selected is well suited for propagation inside the human body, the OET observed, and the devices make use of the latest automatic frequency selection technologies and interference mitigation techniques. The devices are able to operate reliably in the presence of higher powered devices.

Commissioner Michael Copps, reflecting the unanimous sense of accomplishment that pervaded the meeting, noted that "every once in a while we get a chance to talk about something that really affects individual lives."

Commissioner Robert McDowell, singled out for praise by Copps for getting the initiative moving, described the report as an example of the best of government performing a core mission, but apologized for the bureaucratic delays that caused disabled patients to have to wait nearly half a decade for the proceeding to come to completion.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn echoed McDowell's regrets concerning the slow course of the underlying administrative proceedings and called for enhanced interagency cooperation: the process of obtaining necessary approvals from agencies within DoD, from NTIA, and from the FCC cost "millions of dollars in administrative expenses," she said, and needed to be streamlined to enable more rapid release of future enhancements.

Broadband Adoption Efforts.

The second item on the Commission's agenda involved another public/private partnership: a national effort to increase the level of broadband adoption, particularly in rural, tribal, and other vulnerable communities.

Presenters noted that broadband is a necessity now, a key element of effective participation in the current job market. "The digital divide is an opportunity divide" whose causes and effects correlate directly with levels of education and income.

The Commission announced the framework of the Connect to Compete program. A partnership venture housed within non-profit enterprise One Economy, the program addresses the principal reasons cited for non-adoption of broadband: cost and digital literacy.

The initial recipients of Connect to Compete services will be families eligible for federal school lunch assistance. Clients will be offered deeply discounted broadband internet access from participating ISPs, laptop computers at $150 and $250 price points from participating manufacturers, and financing from Morgan Stanley. Corporate partners will offer training in digital literacy, as will more than 6,000 (mostly urban) public libraries. Phase I will launch next spring; nationwide deployment will follow next fall.

Focusing on the partnership aspect of the initiative, Commissioner Clyburn said "most importantly, the message will be delivered by neighbors, not strangers. Partners like One Economy, the Urban League, and others can bring the message more effectively than regulators."