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24 minutes

So you want to try out a new technology? Where do you start? The FCC's experimental licensing program has played a key role in the development of new products and services—from smartphones to new 5G equipment. But how does the program work, and what sorts of technologies have come through it? Some we may be using in our daily lives. Others may have been a bit too wild to make it to market. From universities to hospitals, what sort of entities are taking advantage of this opportunity? And what should consumers and engineers know about the program? Evan discusses all that and more with Walter Johnston, Former Chief of the Electromagnetic Compatibility Division in the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology. (Disclaimer)


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

So you want to try out a new technology. Where do you start?

Over the years, the FCC's experimental licensing program has played a key role in the development of new products and services. Whether it's your smartphone or next gen 5G technologies, how does this program work? And what sorts of technologies have come through it?

Universities, hospitals, who else is taking advantage of the opportunity? And what are some of the wildest ideas that you might have never heard of that have come across the FCC's desk?

Joining me to discuss this is Walter Johnston, chief of the electromagnetic compatibility division in the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology. That's a bit of a mouthful. Walt, thanks for joining.

MR. JOHNSTON: Thank you.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So before we start, how did you come to be where you are at the FCC?

MR. JOHNSTON: Well, I knew some of the people here. I used to work for Verizon. And some of the people that I had worked with had gravitated to the FCC. I was doing some consulting, traveling quite a bit, and I missed working with a team of people. Consulting is sort of a lonely job. You go in, you spend a short time with a company, and then you go out again.

Somebody alerted me to an opening in an organization. I applied for it. And that was 14 years ago. So I've been here for 14 years.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So some people might be wondering, why do you need an experimental license to try out a new technology? You know, when you create something shouldn't you just be able to turn it on and let it rip? You know, what role does the FCC play when someone creates a new technology?

MR. JOHNSTON: Well, you have to look at it maybe from the other side of the mirror. Okay. We have a whole set of rules developed over decades that allow people to use radio technology without interfering with each other. Millions of millions of devices are in use every day. And it's an amazing fact that people view this as transparent.

A cell phone works, it doesn't interfere with another cell phone. It doesn't interfere with another device. That's all because we have these it's like a traffic system. You have millions and millions of callers on the road, and people understand what a stop sign means, what a stop light means, that traffic goes one way or the other on one side of the street. All these rules are put into place to ensure that the thousands and thousands of devices and the millions of millions of people using them can use these devices efficiently without interference.

However, when you're designing a new product or a new service, you want to sort of step outside the rules. So, we have a process, a very important process, that allows people to with oversight, to develop devices that aren't conforming to the rules or for them to use a frequency spectrum that they're not legally entitled to use for a commercial service.

For example, if you want to build a new cell phone, that spectrum of radio frequencies are typically licensed to a cell phone company. So a manufacturer has no intrinsic right to use that frequency because we've auctioned it off and it's used in a competitive marketplace. But you need to develop the equipment. You need to test the equipment on the frequencies. So we developed an entire process and procedure that allows people to do that in an efficient manner.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And how long has this program been around?

MR. JOHNSTON: That predates my existence here. It goes back decades. I'd actually have to look into the records for when their first experimental license was granted.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: That's close enough. So to give us a sense of how long this program has been around, were there technologies that we now take for granted that you recall being at the testing phase, and, you know, now they're ubiquitous and everyone's using them, but once upon a time, it was just an experiment?

MR. JOHNSTON: Well, certainly the biggest one sorry, and actually I was on both sides of this equation. I was working for Bell Labs. And in 1975 I believe 1976, I received a phone call from a friend of mine also in Bell Laboratories who was working on AMPS which was the Analog Mobile Phone Service.

And in order to develop that technology, you needed an experimental license. You needed a right to develop equipment. And people today don't understand that in 1975 cell phone technology was a radical technology. People didn't know that it would work. People didn't understand the market implications.

There's a famous study by McKinsey which are a very well respected consulting company. And they estimated that the total market for cell phones would be, if I remember, roughly around a million and a half people, because they viewed it as a paging system. They viewed it as something that would be used by professionals and technicians.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So they were only off by a few billion people in that estimation.

MR. JOHNSTON: And the other side of the coin and this is something else I had from my personal experience. When I first joined Bell Laboratories, one of the programs they had which was wonderful, is they took you on a tour. They spent you spent a month in a telephone company. I remember being in Boston and the guy I was with had a radiotelephone in his car. It wasn't a cell phone. It was more like a walkie talkie but connected to the phone network. And I asked him, I said, gee, that's incredible. How many people can use that system?

He says, well, six at a time. So for the entire city of Boston six people could use what we view today as wireless phone communications. Okay, so that's what cell phone technology brought to us.

And there was a ten year program at least of invention, trial, testing, to lay the foundation for that. Okay. And in fact, by the way, most technologies have sort of a tipping point. I was involved part of my career was involved in internet building internet systems. I was I worked on one of the first regional internet networks.

And I remember the CEO of Intel. The internet just celebrated its twentieth anniversary. And he was telling us that he was blindsided by the internet. And I was amazed by that statement. He's a very smart man, Andy Grove. But he was saying that suddenly the internet was upon him. And yet those of us who'd been working on it I'd been working on it some of the people had been working it for 20 years. It's like saying you were sideswiped by an iceberg, you know. So when the change occurs, okay, it is dramatic.

Another example people can more easily relate to is the iPhone. Okay. I was here at the FCC when a service provider came in and talked to us about 3G technology. The first broadband wireless service that was going to be deployed. And in discussing it, they said, well, gee, we don't know if there's a market for data. Because at that time, the biggest market for data was ringtones and text messages. Okay, and they said, we're going to give it a little try, if it works, we'll maybe expand it to other cities.

About two years later the iPhone was invented, and all hell broke loose.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yeah. And it occurs to me, you know, to ask when you're sitting at this desk and new technologies come across it, some are going to make it some aren't. Is that a discussion that occurs at the FCC? You know, maybe it's at the water cooler or at the coffee maker. Do you have a sense of when something's really big it's going to be transformative or is it just like so many technologies where it's just impossible to foresee how it's going to change markets?

MR. JOHNSTON: Everybody's got their personal opinion. But let me let state at the outset and one of the rules we have is we don't let personal opinions enter into whether we grant an experimental license. And in fact, we're very much different from every other licensing bureau at the FCC. Most licensing bureaus exist to give a license to a company qualified to receive that license as long as they're conformant with the rules inherent in that licensed technology.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And you are giving licenses to people who are necessarily not going to be conforming to those rules.

MR. JOHNSTON: That's right. So, where the other bureaus might be restrictive, we bend over backwards to try to grant the license if we can, okay? And in fact, the golden rule is as long as you're not interfering with anybody else. And also, as long as you're not using it for, say, commercial purposes because it's not to sustain a business.

But as long as you're using it for experimental purposes, we'll bend over backwards to try to grant the license regardless of whether or not we think it's a great idea or a dumb idea.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And to that point, you know, people might be able to guess that certainly, companies want to take advantage of this program, industry players, people who are eventually going to try to bring something to market, but what are some of the less obvious examples of people who participate in the program? You know, on the website, I see that universities often apply, hospitals give us a sense of the wide spectrum of applicants?

MR. JOHNSTON: It varies. We've granted experimental licenses to high schools that are participating in CubeSat experiments. Certainly, companies get a lot of them so the bigger companies.

We've worked with innovators that are looking there's one device that somebody was using as a device that would around a dog's neck that would check the health of the animal. And we've done that. We've done ground penetrating radar systems.

One that I took special pride in not personal pride, but we had a researcher that wanted to do a ground penetrating radar across the polar ice caps to measure the depth of the polar ice caps. And he'd been trying to get this license for a long time. And the reason it was difficult was because he was using a wide range of frequencies.

Now again, understand with an experimental license what we grant it subject to the fact that you're not going to interfere with licensed operation. So the more bands that you use, the wider area of operation that you want to use it over, you increase the probability that somebody is going to going to get interfered with.


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: It limits the ability to grant the license.

He had made arrangements. He got grant money to fly an airplane across the polar ice cap. So he's going all over the polar ice cap. He's going over at Naval operations, Canadian operations, but the people involved realized that this was a noteworthy project. So we spent probably about two or three months, not just within the FCC, but with our sister agency NTIA coordinating with various military organizations, looking at schedules associated with shipping, to give him a capability to fly over. That's probably the most complex grant I've ever been involved with. But I was really impressed that people spent time and effort making sure that this guy could get his work done.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And how does the program work? I mean I have an idea, I've got a concept I want to start I mean without getting too much into the weeds, how do you go about participating in the FCC's licensing program? Is it easy? Is it difficult? Do you need to hire lawyers?

MR. JOHNSTON: It varies. We certainly we've had individuals file the application which you have to have some knowledge about what you're doing. You're filing for a radio application.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: As a general baseline.

MR. JOHNSTON: Right. So let's assume that the innovator knows something about radio technology. The basic premise is you have to identify what frequencies you want to operate on. You have to identify a couple of the technical characteristics such as the power of the signal you expect to be emitting and the antenna characteristics. And you have to identify where you're going to be operating.

So let's take two examples. Okay. I have a great invention, I think, and I need to test it, and I'm going to do this in the middle of Montana. And I'm going to be emitting only at a single location with a very low power signal, and that's probably the easiest thing I could imagine granting.


MR. JOHNSTON: Okay, because you're not going to interfere with anybody.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And I'd imagine a lot of people choose to do these tests in sparsely populated areas.

MR. JOHNSTON: It varies, actually. If you're a big company, you probably have a test field somewhere if you're in the business, so it varies. And we have a lot of drone testing right now that's done in the middle of nowhere because people see the value of the freedom of testing.

But the alternative case is somebody will come to us and say, gee, I've got a great idea, and I want to do this in South Manhattan. And that's the nightmare.


MR. JOHNSTON: And we get a couple of those. And so, we'll grant the license, as I said, for almost anything as long as you're not interfering with a licensed holder. So Manhattan would be the tough case.

You were asking about the types of things we've done. Again, we make no judgment, but people spent some time and effort launching the Zinger in space. That's a Burger King sandwich that went up into the stratosphere on a balloon recording it with a camera. And we had a filing for that. And again, we don't make a judgment. And we actually enabled Burger King to launch a chicken sandwich into the stratosphere.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Well, it sounds like it's certainly a judgment free zone much like the writer's room on a comedy show or something like that.

MR. JOHNSTON: Well, we had to be honest, we took a it's one of the things we talk about sometimes. One of our proudest achievements is always going to be the Zinger in space.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Oh, yeah. Well, I'm sure that's going to be a crowd favorite when people listen to this episode. So I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you to maybe provide at least one more. I know there are some restrictions with names of companies and things like that, but being here for 14 years, you must have seen some potentially wacky maybe not so wacky, but interesting ideas come across your desk. And do you have any that really stick with you?

MR. JOHNSTON: The ones well, not wacky, but we get it gives you an idea of how we're trying to balance. Everybody uses GPS today.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yeah, we take it for granted. It just works.

MR. JOHNSTON: We take it for granted. And I'll say at the that there are a number of proposals, substantive proposals, going forward for how we can improve the reliability and utility of GPS. But GPS itself, what people think of as GPS, the frequencies are almost semi sacred in the sense that it's a signal broadcast from space, which is attenuated to an incredibly small level. It's actually below the what we call the noise floor. And then through sophisticated technology that signal is brought out of the noise and captured and used to do geolocation. Because of that, we're very careful in this country with ensuring that nobody experiments on the GPS frequencies. We have very strict tolerances on that.

And we get probably once a year maybe twice a year. Somebody will come up with either a good idea. Somebody because there certainly is improvement in terms of, for example, altitude detection with GPS is very poor. And there are ways that you can enhance that with terrestrial beacons. Some people come up with what we would consider and I'll say this without naming names, self serving or not very great ideas, at least in my personal view.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yeah, potentially dangerous.

MR. JOHNSTON: And we can't grant those simply because that's probably the toughest frequency band to grant in experimental licensing. We do it in very restrictive circumstances. I'm not going to go into the highly detailed, but we take a lot of potential.

On the other hand, as we've made a lot of progress in authorizing experiments in what are called low earth orbit satellites, something I'm personally very excited about. If the technology works, it is a game potentially a game changer. Because for the first time, you'll have a satellite technology with very low latency that can be sort of a Wi Fi in the sky.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And that's been the challenge historically with satellite broadband is that it's so far away from the user that the latency, or as you might call it as a video gamer, online lag, makes it difficult to use services like streaming video or video games and things like that.

MR. JOHNSTON: There's a half a second delay going up and down to a geosynchronous satellite.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And that makes all the difference.

MR. JOHNSTON: In fact, it's even worse than that. Because if we were both if we used geosynchronous satellites for phone calls, which has been a proposal. If I called you, that would be two satellite links. It would be up and down, up and down. So there'd be a one and a half second delay between our communication.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Oh yeah, that's too much.

Well, briefly, when you get an experimental license, and you have it granted, I mean, how long does it generally take to you know, let's say it's successful and what role does the Office of Engineering and Technology play in turning that from an experiment into a commercial product or a research product that is now licensed and no longer an experiment?

MR. JOHNSTON: Well, it varies. There's a couple of stages for this. To actually grant a license takes somewhere around two to three months on average. It can take a lot longer depending upon the complexity of .


MR. JOHNSTON: what you're trying to do. Two to three months is the typical grant. Although we have recently last year, we innovated. We came out with a new type of experimental license called a program license, which we view for sort of serial innovators. These are like universities or industrial complexes that work in radio technology continually and are always doing experiments.

What we realized is that they're doing these experiments typically on an environment, a domain, that they control, a campus for example. And for instances where we are doing this on a campus environment, we're letting them write their own license. So, in other words, as long as they operate within the campus, they can write a license, and they can be up and operating within about a five to ten day period.


MR. JOHNSTON: Excuse me, ten to 15 day period.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Still pretty good.

MR. JOHNSTON: Still pretty good. And it allows them to basically avoid having to have the overhead of working through us, having us coordinate. And then often, there's another overhead attached that if they have to seek the consent of a licensed party. But if they're doing this on their own physical space, we're allowing them to put it up on a website, and say we're going to do this in ten days. And if nobody objects to that, they're good to go.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yeah, so they only need to ask for they don't need to ask for permission if as long as they don't hear something from you they're good to go in five to ten days.

MR. JOHNSTON: Now, once the experiment starts, how long it takes to complete is really up to the innovator.


MR. JOHNSTON: Some of these experiments complete within weeks. Some of them are one to two years. Increasingly, we're seeing with the consumer devices, by the way, experiments that involve thousands and thousands tens of thousands of devices. And they're up there their validation period can be years.

Sometimes they go into market trails, another type of experimental license. Once they have the product in a form they think they're going to they can make money at, be commercially feasible, someone will have to do a market trial to establish price points and market demand.

We're seeing, for example, with driverless cars or with smart I call it smart cars, maybe not driverless fully driverless vendors doing experiments with hundreds if not thousands of cars now. Cars are being equipped with under experimental licenses with, you know, more than a dozen different radar systems and other sensing devices.

So this is an integral part of manufacturers testing the products, finding their reliability, finding the parameters that optimize the performance of the product. And when they get those things set, and that can be a year long process, a multi year process. They go out and try to market it. That also might involve coming back to either OET or some engineering technology, another bureau having gained the knowledge from the market, they'll take that back and maybe propose a rule change that might require an adjustment in terms of our transmission rules.

They might have to work with we have an equipment certification organization. They might have to talk about how they're going to get the equipment certified. All these things go on in a complex product launch.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right, and a lot of the things that we use have gone through this process. And eventually, now they're ubiquitous, and everyone's using them. Now .

MR. JOHNSTON: But let me say one other thing too, I think I've been pressed in the last 14 years. The people I've met here, okay, really try to work with industry to make things happen every I've been through a number of chairman and chairwomen. And the people here try to work with industry in the best interest of the country. So they will bend over backwards to try to look at the opportunities, the need to change. And since I've been here, I think the rate of innovation has increased enormously. If you haven't I don't think it takes anybody with a technical background, but anybody who's looked around and realized that we're in an era of social media, wireless technologies, sensing systems, IoT, the pace is just staggering.

And I go back to that first meeting I had with a major wireless company who in 2005 was wondering if there was a market for data services. I think that's been proven at this point.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yeah, and you read my mind, I was going to ask you about that. But what I want to close on is you've been here for 14 years. You're actually retiring the week that we're recording this. So, one, congratulations, two, thank you for your service. And I know the chairman gave you a shout out at your last open meeting. But what advice do you have for the next generation of FCC Engineers or engineers at companies that are trying to experiment? You've been around the block, you've seen a lot of things. What wisdom would you like to impart on the upcoming the future Walter Johnstons?

MR. JOHNSTON: Well, it from the perspective of outward looking in our perspective of inside, I should say. The opportunities I have found that been most successful have been ones where we're working on a continual basis with innovators and industry partners. There's sort of a meet and greet that's a standard part of any government agency where people come in for a one hour discussion. That's nice. It gives you some information.

But the things that I look back on that have been substantive have come about because there's a continual flow of information between industry and the agency. And the agency gets very smart in terms of what our industry needs as a result. And I'd say that any engineer working for the Commission should bend over backwards to jump at every opportunity to work on a continuing basis with any number of industry groups, and really realize your job is to be a catalyst for change a communications change in the United States.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: That's some good parting wisdom, and we'll leave it there.

My guest has been Walter Johnston, chief of the electromagnetic compatibility division in the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology. Walt, thank you so much for joining and congrats again.

MR. JOHNSTON: Thank you.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Find this podcast in iTunes, Apple Podcast Google Play, wherever you get your podcasts. Please leave us a review because it will help others find the show.

We'll leave some information about the experimental licensing program in the show notes. And if you've got an idea, we'll give you some links. And at least you can start the process which having listened to this episode you now know more about.