There’s Information That Can Make Our Cellphones Work Better - And We Want to Use It

Consumers of cellphones and other wireless devices have a lot to look forward to in the next few years.  The FCC is working to promote wireless competition by improving the spectrum screen and free up more spectrum for device users through incentive auctions

But dealing with spectrum can be “really hard.” 

“Really hard” like taking that test in the class you most dreaded. But remember how those tests got easier when you knew the answers because you had a textbook filled with information and you actually studied it?  Well that approach should also work for the FCC and will work if it takes some steps to organize its data.

Where The Info Is

The FCC—which should enjoy (not dread) solving spectrum problems—has a lot of publicly available data on the wireless market that it collects and stores in the Universal Licensing System (ULS).   Unfortunately, the ULS does not read as easily as a textbook. As Public Knowledge commented to the FCC, it's time to make the ULS a useful source of information. The FCC and others need to learn more about the wireless market to improve it with innovative technologies and well-informed policies that benefit consumers.

Before discussing how to improve the ULS, let's talk about what's wrong with it. 

Why We Don't Know What We Should Know

Searching the ULS is like opening Pandora's box.  At the outset, it seems a little cumbersome but harmless enough. But sooner or later, you realized you've unleashed a monster.   

PK wanted to know the current state of the wireless market and how it has changed over the years, in anticipation of the FCC's work on the spectrum screen and incentive auctions.  This is basic information that everyone who cares about spectrum should know, but no one really knows it because it's too difficult to get out of the ULS.  For PK's interests in wireless competition, we needed to piece together two things from the ULS: 1) major carriers' affiliate companies, and 2) affiliate companies' spectrum licenses.  For more details on the data analysis process, read our comments, but the chart below illustrates the burdensome first step of determine major carriers' affiliate companies.

TASK

DESCRIPTION 

TIME 

Setup 

Devised a plan of attacked, downloaded, formatted, and studied data in order to run queries and generate results.  

17 hours

Chronicling Carriers’ Control of Affiliates

Compiled day-to-day ownership data from publicly available filings using the FCC’s ULS database, Microsoft Access queries, and Microsoft Excel.  Worked to make collection process more efficient and dealt with technological failures.

343 hours 

Generating Results

Analyzed data to determine ownership and control of affiliates at the end of each year.

100 hours

 

CUMULATIVE TIME IT TOOK ONE PERSON TO COLLECT OWNERSHIP INFO

 

 

460 hours (~3 months)


 

It shouldn't take 460 hours to gather information to learn something about the wireless market that everyone should already know. But obtaining information from the ULS is a process of trial and error that includes multiple databases, numerous query searches, tech failures, and several months of work. The project took so long that PK didn't have the information in time to include it in the FCC's spectrum screen proceeding. PK is still working to collect and analyze the licensing information, which may take several more months. 

Fixing the ULS

The difficulties associated with obtaining information from the ULS are hurting the wireless market and consumers. With more information on what carriers control spectrum, the FCC could develop new policies to improve competition and innovators could improve wireless devices and services. The good news is that it should be possible to fix the ULS by carefully considering how to organize the information in a way that is more useful (hopefully without a lot of funding or immediate technological changes). Here's how: 

  • Consider how parties that care about spectrum want to use data, and make it so they can use data in that manner
  • Make all nonproprietary data available, including data used for mobile competition reports
  • Include archived files in downloadable databases 
  • Improve/add different types of downloadable databases 
  • Ensure filers comply with reporting requirements
  • Simplify forms/filings
  • Continue updating the technology behind the ULS to make it easier to use and search
  • Consider using open source databases like GitHub if updating the ULS system is too costly

How Consumers Benefit

Consumers' ability to communicate and use wireless devices shouldn't get messed up because innovators and policymakers don't fully understand what they're doing. With improvements, the ULS has the potential to become an incredibly powerful hub of publicly available information that various parties can use to learn about specific aspects of the wireless market. That knowledge will be the basis for solving all kinds of spectrum-related problems and devoting resources to what matters most—developing new mobile technologies and improving consumer choices and services.

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