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25 minutes

It's a cliche, but that doesn't make it any less true: technology has changed rapidly over the past few decades. And the FCC has played a role in enabling the introduction of new services that we use in our daily lives. But few people have had the unique perspective of today's guest, who has overseen these developments for, um, quite some time. Evan is joined by Julie Knapp, Chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) at the FCC. They discuss the evolution of the OET from past to present—from the brick cell phones of the 1980's to the smartphones of today. And what technologies on the horizon are most exciting to the FCC's chief engineer? (Disclaimer)


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Welcome to More than 7 Dirty Words, the official FCC podcast. I'm Evan Swarztrauber.

It's a cliche, but that doesn't make it any less true. Technology has changed rapidly over the past several decades.

And the FCC has played a role in enabling the introduction of new services and technologies that we use in our daily lives.

But few people have had the unique perspective of my guest today, who has been overseeing these developments for the past -- ah, some years. I'll let him say that number himself.

From the brick cell phones of the '80s to the smartphones of today, from the early days of cable television to the streaming devices being used in homes across the country, what's it been like to see this evolution, and how has the agency evolved to keep pace with the new tech coming to market?

Joining me to discuss this is none other than Julie Knapp, chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology at the FCC. Julie, thanks for joining.

MR. KNAPP: Well, thank you, Evan. It's a pleasure to be here.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So, I always start the same way. How did you get to your current role? What pathway took you here?

MR. KNAPP: So, I did start a few years ago. Some.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Like three or four?

MR. KNAPP: Yeah, some say it was like, just after the discovery of fire.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Oh, that's good. Yeah.


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: I didn't realize that was an engineering issue.

MR. KNAPP: Yeah. No, I actually came to the FCC straight out of college. Engineering school was 1974, so I've seen a lot transpire since then.

And I spent a good part of my career out at the FCC lab actually performing measurements on equipment, and so forth.

And had various management positions in the Office of Engineering and Technology through the years, involving spectrum allocations, unlicensed, and so forth.

And I've had this job for a bit over 13 years now as the chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology, OET.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Wow. Yeah, I mean, people these days in D.C. don't -- are not too loyal to their jobs, but thankfully we have folks like you that stick around, so.

I had your now retired colleague, Walter Johnson, on the show. We talked a bit about the experimental licensing program specifically.

But in general, I mean, how do you see the role of the Office of Engineering and Technology?

Which might not be the -- part of the agency that a lot of folks interact with necessarily, depending on how they, you know, come to get to know the agency.

MR. KNAPP: Yeah. It is a fun and interesting job. So, as you would anticipate, so many of the things that the FCC deals with involved technology and engineering matters.

And so, part of the role for the Office of Engineering and Technology is to sort through that and provide advice to the chairmen and commissioners to work with the other bureaus and offices, and so forth.

And of course, we have direct line responsibilities for things like equipment authorization, and as you mentioned, experimental licensing.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So this is kind of a two part question. I'll start with the first part.

Over your short career here at the FCC, what technologies that have come across your desk really stick out in your mind, even today with all the new stuff on the horizon?

What are the older things that maybe we're using now, you know, on a mass scale and don't even think about, really just stick out to you?

MR. KNAPP: Yeah. So obviously, so much has changed in that 45 years or so.

One is -- of course, is the introduction of commercial wireless technologies. I still remember -- and I've repeated this story many times --

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Well, I've never heard it, so feel free to --

MR. KNAPP: Being in the hallway when we were considering additional spectrum allocations for commercial wireless.

And at that point in time -- commercial wireless was introduced in roughly 1983 -- and here we are at 1986, '87, looking at, well maybe they need more than the 40 megahertz they started with.

And the discussion in the hallway was -- at that point in time, they had 600,000 subscribers, and the question was, do you think they'll ever get over 1,000,000?

And of course, today we've got more wireless devices, phones, out there than people.


MR. KNAPP: So, that's what --

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: It's very common to have two cell phones. Yeah.

MR. KNAPP: Absolutely. And so, that I think has been a dramatic change through the years.

Of course, the emergence of the internet and the explosion of unlicensed devices. The things that we use every day in our lives and don't even think about them using radio.

So, there's so many other things you could talk about, but those stand out.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yeah, and unlicensed is a great segue because I wanted to ask, you know, when the FCC is looking at a particular spectrum band -- you know, the airwaves that are going to be used for a specific technology, or not -- I mean, sometimes they look at it and they just say, we don't know what this is going to be used -- how do you, as -- you know, as an engineer and as the Office of Engineering, how do you deal with this issue of, okay, there's this spectrum here, we don't really know how it's going to impact the economy necessarily.

We don't know what's -- what it's going to be used for, but we still have to allocate it, or we have to designate it as licensed or unlicensed.

How do you deal with that issue when you might not see the payoff for, you know, dozens of years down the road?

MR. KNAPP: Yeah. So, let's look at it from a couple of different perspectives.

One is this thing that is the master zoning map for the airwaves in the world and in the United States.

It's organized in a way so that the services that sit side by side will -- won't interfere with each other.

And we do that through technical analysis. So, that's one area. Just managing the -- this master zoning map of the airwaves, to make sure all the pieces fit together well.

And the other is performing technical analysis. I have a service in one area on the same frequency as service in another area.

How do we do the engineering calculations to make sure that they won't interfere with each other?

And it's very high-level. It sounds simple, but it obviously is much more complicated than that.


MR. KNAPP: And then lastly, I think the --the beauty of this all is moving from an era many years ago where we looked at exactly what the service was going to be, and try to predict its characteristics, to a model where we said, general technical parameters, and then let innovation flourish.

A great example. In the service that many people called 4G, which was exciting when it was being introduced, but nobody was really anticipating things like, the iPhone, and stores marketing applications, and so forth.

And that was transformational. And that's terrific. That's what we try to do, is let innovation in an investment flourish.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. So, another great example. 4G of course is one. Wi-Fi. You know, correct me if I'm wrong.

A lot of the spectrum that is used for Wi-Fi was designated as unlicensed well before anyone was using it as Wi-Fi.

So how does that, you know, play into your thinking?

And you know, when you were dealing with that spectrum, you know, 2.4 gigahertz, 5 gigahertz -- for you nerds out there, or those of you who've looked at the back of your router -- how do you deal with that?

MR. KNAPP: Yeah. So, that's a great example of a model where we set a framework and let innovation flourish.

So, there was a landmark decision in the mid-1980s to open up bands that were thought of as junk because they were bands set aside for machines that radiated a lot of radio energy, so other services were not protected against interference.

So, we made them open for unlicensed use. (unintelligible) that were known as spread spectrum.

The rules didn't say what the devices were going to be.

And so now, let's fast forward from 1985, when those rules were developed, to the introduction of the first generation Wi-Fi in the late 1990s.

So, that emerged originally as a way to link computers together.

And nobody at the time we made this decision in 1985 was thinking, oh, there will be a Wi-Fi. And Wi-Fi will be available nearly everywhere in the world.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: If they knew, they'd probably be pretty wealthy today.

MR. KNAPP: Absolutely. So, you know, it's a great example of creating a flexible framework where the technology can flourish in ways that nobody can anticipate at the time you take the action.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So yeah, we've mentioned some technologies that have come across your desk that are now being used, which are great.

You know, 4G, Wi-Fi. Bluetooth's another example.

Looking ahead as you look to maybe what the next big thing is, the next big

Wi-Fi, something that might change the market.

What gets you excited in this unique role that you have about what you're working on today that we might see down the line?

MR. KNAPP: Yeah. So, and one of the fun things about this job is on a daily basis, we have people coming in with new ideas, and trying to find ways to enable their introduction.

So there's a lot of discussion right now and focused on 5G, and maybe I'll just say a few words about what I think is transformational about 5G.

So, we've seen the evolution from one generation of technology to the next.

5G is transformational in one particular respect, and that is, it allows for real-time interaction with things.

And that's a game changer. You know, an obvious way are -- is the interaction on games.

When you're pushing the buttons on the game controller and the action is not keeping up, and you're losing points because of this, you know, that is meaningful to the people who play that.

But more than that, it's the ability to control machines at a distance and have a real-time interaction.

So, the real-time interaction is one way. It opens the door for things like transportation applications, medical, and so forth.

The capacity increase, and why does that matter? It's not just faster download speeds, and videos, and so forth.

But it opens the door to applications where you need a lot of data for things to happen rapidly, like virtual reality, augmented reality, and so forth.

So, I'll stop there. That's just the 5G. You know, the -- I won't stop there.

One thing more, you know, in the satellite arena, we're seeing the introduction of huge constellations of lower orbiting satellites, which reduces the latency for providing broadband services to people.

So, another way to get service, perhaps out to people who don't have broadband service today.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And this is different than, you know, the satellites people might be familiar with.

The really, really big ones which are stationary. They just go up into space and they stay in one spot and they beam something down.

Now, we're talking about, you know, maybe a thousand, or thousands of much, much smaller satellites that do actually orbit the earth.

MR. KNAPP: Yeah. And the satellites now come in all shapes and sizes.

I think -- you know, one of the things I've watched through my career -- you know, years ago, you think a satellite is a big piece of equipment machine up in space.

And now, you'll have a satellite that is smaller than the size of a shoe box.

And that's just remarkable to think of the constellations of these that we'll have up in the sky.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So we did an entire episode about experimental licensing, so we don't have to get too bogged down in that, but there's another program that's big in OET called equipment authorization.

We might want to get sexier names for these programs, but it's okay. It is literally authorizing equipment, so I guess it's an (inaudible) name.

And that gets a lot of attention. Maybe something -- certain thing that happened with our government a few months back got people riled up about it.

But, you know, what role does equipment authorization play at the FCC?

And maybe are there some examples of technologies that people might not realize actually do come to the FCC before they're able to buy them in a store or buy them online?

MR. KNAPP: Yeah, absolutely. So, the purpose of the equipment authorization program is to make sure that the equipment meets all of these technical rules that we put in place, to make sure that all of these services and products can share the airwaves without stepping on each other. Without interference.

And although the techy requirements are things like the power and the frequency, and how to (unintelligible) emissions, and so forth, in the end, that's what makes everything play together nicely.

So, almost all of the radio transmitters that we use have to be certified before they can be marketed.

In other words, they get tested. They're reviewed by outside experts. We call them telecommunication certification bodies.

And then, in the end, before they go on the market, the grants of certification are entered into a public database.

So, the minute something's entered into the database is often -- because everything up to that point is non-public -- there's a lot of speculation about what that product is, and -- because we don't actually certify relative to what it does, we just make sure it's in the right lane on the airwaves, the power level is right.

We don't look at, what are the capabilities relative to its performance?

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. So you're just making sure everything plays nice, and we take it for granted, but there's a reason that devices are not interfering.

It's because the FCC's doing things to make sure of that, and if you just allowed people potentially to build any equipment and transmit on any frequency, then clearly, there would be interference, and that's why we have enforcement folks to deal with that.


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: I'm sure (inaudible). Sorry about that.

But, you know, other things that, you know, might not be obvious to people that the FCC is dealing with.

One example that you shot over in the notes when we were discussing what to talk about today that I've got to bring up.


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Shoulder pads and football players.

MR. KNAPP: So --

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: What does the FCC have to do with shoulder pads and football players?

MR. KNAPP: So that's the beauty of what we talked about before. So, (inaudible) many years ago, the Commission established rules for technology called ultra wideband.

These are signals that are very low level, but spread over a broad range of frequencies at extremely -- as I said, very low power levels.

And it was very controversial at the time because it overlaid on spectrum used by other services, and there was concerns about interference.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Oh, that's a common thing, right?

MR. KNAPP: Yeah.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: There's always people concerned about interference, so.

MR. KNAPP: Absolutely. So, you know, originally at the time, people were thinking that this was going to be something like wireless broadband, and so forth.

So we have a Commission rulemaking proceeding where we're looking at some of the spectrum where these devices operate.

And lo and behold, people came in and said, remember that ultra wideband technology that you authorized years ago?

Well, we actually have it deployed in the shoulder pads of the football players in the National Football League.

And you'd say, well, why would you do that?

And so, when you're watching the broadcast and you see the commentators talk about exactly where this player was, and so forth, they're getting this information from the location technology for each of the players on the field to help with the analysis.

And, so here's something you wouldn't even be aware is there that has an application that we may appreciate as viewers -- sports enthusiasts -- and never know that there's a technology connection.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Oh yeah. I mean, and there's other sports as well.

I mean, I'll be honest. It never occurred to me when I'm watching these football games and they show the heat map, or where, you know -- the ground that is being covered and how often this player spends in this route versus this route, and you just kind of watch.

You're like, cool, that's cool that they have it, but you never really stop to ask how in the world in the course of a game are they able to get this information so quickly?


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So we talked about 5G, we talked about Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, so many great technologies.

Another one that's been coming up in the news a lot these days is TV white spaces.


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And there's a great example. And I think of a name that doesn't necessarily indicate to the uninitiated what exactly is going on, so any thoughts on that?

MR. KNAPP: So, you know, one of the challenges that we have is that we're providing access to the airways for all of these new technologies and services.

But we're not manufacturing any new airwaves, new spectrum, new frequencies.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yeah, we don't have people for that.

MR. KNAPP: Yeah, right. You know, if I could find a factory, I'd probably be out of a job.

But -- so we've been looking at ways that we can provide access to the spectrum without interfering.

And in the TV broadcast spectrum, it -- when you go out, particularly into the rural areas, there are many channels that aren't being used.

So, this technology uses a database. The product says, here's where I am.

It accesses the database. The database says, if you're at that place, here is -- here are the vacant channels, here are the channels that are not being used by TV or low power or translators, and so forth.

And then the device is smart enough, it can move to those frequencies. So what does it do? Why is this interesting?

Because at the frequencies in the TV spectrum, I get good coverage over hills and through buildings.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yeah, as opposed to maybe certain high-bands, which we we're talking about for 5G, where you need an antenna every three city blocks.

That's not necessarily what we're going to see in rural America. No.

MR. KNAPP: So here, we're talking about something that maybe can go ten or 12 miles and get a pretty decent data rate to provide services to people.

So, one of the things that we've been doing is trying to keep fine-tuning those rules.

Similar to Wi-Fi, we fine-tune most rules several points along the way to make that happen.

So, you know, we just last week had made some updated changes in the rules. There are likely more to come to make it even more amenable for these kinds of services.

But, it's a way to provide for new services for consumers, and squeeze more out of the airwaves that we have.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And then, looking forward to airwaves where we're not necessarily seeing wide deployments, but the FCC is opening them up for experimentation on unlicensed, the term spectrum horizons has been part of the FCC agendas for a couple years now.

We're talking spectrum bands that I'm sure previously people thought were junk, and there's a great pattern in history at the FCC of spectrum bands being thought of as junk in one era, and then maybe transforming our economy in another era.

MR. KNAPP: (inaudible)

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: But when we think to these, you know, horizons -- 95 gigahertz and above, terahertz spectrum.

I mean, just based on your experience, do you have a sense of what you'd like to see happen?

Or if you could wave a magic wand, what sorts of cool technologies might be coming out of that?

MR. KNAPP: Yeah. So, let's go back. When you look at the earlier history of the Commission, there were times where people -- and they, a while back thought 30 megahertz was high.

And as we moved up in the radio spectrum, the signals don't go as far pound for pound.

And even in the early days of cellular, the 800 megahertz frequencies that were thought of were thought of at the time as, well, that's really high.

Well, it didn't matter that the signals didn't go quite as far because we could have a network of transmission towers to get the coverage that we need.

And it wasn't all that long ago that people talked about the only spectrum for mobile communications that was usable, because of these high losses, was below 3,000 megahertz -- 3 gigahertz.

So there's been a progression of moving higher and higher up in the airwaves, opening it up for new services and technology development.

So just last week, we released a Commission decision. It was actually made a week ago, this past Friday.

To open up spectrum above 95 gigahertz. And it's another great example of -- just like back in 1985, we don't know what will emerge here.

There are exciting possibilities. But often, the technology develops to the point to overcome those things that we might think of as obstacles today.

And so -- so, for example, people say, well, the signals don't go as far, but I can network the devices in a way to overcome that.

So, who knows what the future will bring. You know, some speculated, oh, that's 6G already.

I don't know that I'd go quite that far. We're still working on the 5G. But the important thing is, create the opportunities and then see where it leads.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So, for potential young people listening to this podcast. I don't really know if (unintelligible) -- anyone's listening.

But, let's just say some young whippersnapper is out there listening and they're like, wow, engineering. I am sold. I want to do it. What advice do you have for that young person?

MR. KNAPP: So, think of the FCC as a career opportunity.


MR. KNAPP: It really is a great place to work. I think the thing for young engineers -- so often now are looking at the computer science area, cyber, and so forth.

There is an enormous amount of exciting work in the radio field.

And for me personally, you know, obviously I've stayed and I found it to be a very rewarding and fun career.

There's never a dull day. I'm never sitting there looking at the clock. If anything, it's my wife calling and telling me it's time to come home. So ---

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: I know you're busy because it was -- we had to schedule this podcast.

MR. KNAPP: Yeah. Yeah, so absolutely. It -- you know, public service in the government can be a very rewarding field.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And any final thoughts before I ask you about the super secret lab in Columbia, Maryland, which you briefly mentioned?

And of course, we don't want to give away anything that would cause major problems for our society, but what should people know about this?

I mean, I think people might be familiar with the FCC because of some controversial thing or some headlines, which is kind of why I started this show, to cover other topics.

But, you know, and yes, we do have this building in D.C. where you and I are talking, but there's also this lab in Maryland. What's going on at that lab?

MR. KNAPP: So, the fun thing about the lab -- so many of the things that we do down here involve what you might think of as paper.

You know, in other words, people filing arguments about, they'll be no interference or there'll be massive interference, and so forth.

Out at the lab, it gives us an opportunity to do hands-on work with products.

So, part of it is managing the equipment authorization program, which is really a worldwide program now, and making sure that everybody is singing to the same sheet of music.

To have the ability to call in a product and see.

People have said this certain product is causing problems, interference, and so forth, so that we -- there, we can bring it in, put it on the test bench, and see what's going on.

And we can do some research on some of these technical debates.

Well, when we look at the issue, is there really an interference risk or not? So that's what we have going on out there.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: All right. Well, if you think something's causing interference, we'll make sure to provide Julie's cell phone number in the notes of this podcast so you can get in touch directly.

I'm sure that would not backfire at all. All right. Any final thoughts?

MR. KNAPP: Yeah. I just, you know, want to say a great big thanks to all of the people that I've had the privilege of working with through the years.

Of course, the many chairmen and commissioners, the past staff at OET.

And you know, I sit here having the honor of representing a group of people who make this happen every day.

And they are terrific. The unsung heroes of communications.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And I want to thank you for coming on the show for what was a really great and entertaining discussion, and informative.

And I look forward to many more years of seeing you getting more spectrum out there, approving more devices, seeing how the market changes.

And I hope this gives people a sense of how the FCC does engineering.

So with that, I'll leave it there. My guest has been Julie Knapp, chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology at the FCC. Thanks for joining.

MR. KNAPP: Thank you, Evan. It's my pleasure.

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Follow me on Twitter at EvanS_FCC. And with that, I'll catch --