As the world moves toward the rollout of fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless technology, the numbers of devices operating in many locations have grown exponentially. The Federal Communications Commission manages the commercial use of the radiofrequency spectrum – those invisible airways on which consumer and commercial wireless devices and networks operate. More wireless devices demand more use of the radio spectrum, leading the FCC to consider how to manage the spectrum more efficiently.

To that end, for the first time in two decades the agency may consider whether and how it may regulate receivers, which is the part of a wireless system that takes in transmissions of communications (e.g., voice, data). Poorly performing receivers make for inefficient spectrum use, limiting the FCC’s ability to cram more users into existing spectrum bands (a finite resource).

Late last year, the design of receivers made national news as the airline industry publicized concerns with possible interference to aircraft altimeters. An FCC decision to auction spectrum on an adjacent band to cellular carriers created concern that some altimeters could suffer performance degradation because these devices “listened” in to the adjacent band. The issue prompted the involvement of various parts of the Biden administration to step in and work out a short-term solution (for now) to modify the rollout of 5G services near airports.

Now the FCC has released a Notice of Inquiry seeking broad input on whether and the degree to which it can or should regulate receivers like those altimeters. While an NOI is used by the agency to collect information and ideas, and does not propose any specific rule changes, it can serve as an initial step toward both new rules and general policy changes.

Here, the question of whether FCC has statutory authority to regulate receivers is at issue. But even if the agency determines not to directly regulate receivers, it may seek to influence receiver design. The Commission therefore asks for comments and suggestions regarding a variety of other actions that it could take to ensure that more efficient receivers are placed in the market. The agency views this as a means to make spectrum use more efficient and intensive, which could allow it to “squeeze” more unrelated user groups into smaller segments of the spectrum.

The NOI asks wide-ranging questions, beginning with collecting information on current receiver efficiency and design and the status of industry standards. The FCC also tees up the possibility of setting out policy guidance or taking other actions to encourage industry to design more efficient receivers – efficiency here meaning greater resiliency to interference by more effectively rejecting the receipt of unwanted emissions.

The agency also asks about policies that it could put into place, such as setting interference limits and expectations for particular types of communications services so that developers need to take into account the coexistence of their entire system – transmitters and receivers. That approach would leave the design specifications to industry standard-setting bodies and manufacturers.

The agency’s message to equipment designers and manufacturers is that few user groups (i.e., other than perhaps public safety–related users or those that hold costly licenses for mobile network operations) should expect unencumbered operations without having to consider the effect of their entire system design on other user groups.

The FCC clearly is pushing industry to be more flexible, more forward thinking, and more thoughtful about receiver design. Its ultimate course – voluntary suggestions versus specific rules – will depend on industry responses to this inquiry.