The search for more spectrum
If President Barack Obama’s goal of repurposing 500 MHz of spectrum for commercial broadband use is to have any chance of success, some of that spectrum must come from the federal government.
With industry and the Federal Communications Commission already working to tap alternative sources of this finite resource, the federal government and the Defense Department in particular face growing pressure to share the wealth. Much of the talk now is focused on how the government could be induced to move faster, and most of the ideas revolve around compensating agencies for relinquishing the spectrum.
At the FCC, Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel advocates giving agencies part of the proceeds that come from auctioning spectrum to the private sector. Similarly, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology suggested developing some kind of spectrum currency. And some lawmakers, including House Communications and Technology Subcommittee leaders Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), have talked about creating a fee structure that would penalize inefficient spectrum use.
The spectrum has "enormous currency, it’s gold," Eshoo said during a hearing last September. Noting that government doesn’t face the same pressure that industry does to be efficient, she suggested some kind of "accounting, allocation and incentive system that would encourage federal agencies to relinquish or share more of their spectrum."
In the current budget-constrained environment, the financial rewards could be appealing to agencies. But so far, nothing material has developed.
In fact, under current law, it is illegal for federal agencies to use revenue generated from auction proceeds for anything other than reallocation.
"I think that’s a good thing," said Frederick Moorefield Jr., director of spectrum policy and programs at DOD, who stressed that the military is driven by its mission and not by profit. "We need access to a variety of different spectrum to do a variety of diverse and complex missions, so that’s our incentive."
DOD has the largest number of spectrum assignments, followed by the Federal Aviation Administration, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Agriculture Department. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is evaluating a wide range of airwaves for potential reallocation, but right now it’s all about DOD. NTIA manages the spectrum for all federal users, and the FCC handles the private sector.
The momentum, if you can call it that, is focused on the 1755-1850 MHz band. The military uses some of it for electronic warfare, air combat training systems, and testing aerial weapon systems and small unmanned aerial vehicles, among other activities.
Industry leaders consider that portion of the spectrum beachfront property because of how well it carries a signal and because it is already configured to operate in a commercial environment.
But figuring out how to deal with that particular slice of spectrum makes untying the Gordian knot look easy. About a year ago, NTIA released a report evaluating that prized patch of spectrum and concluded that it would take $18 billion and 10 years to make it available for commercial broadband. But instead of focusing all their energy on clearing it, NTIA said industry and government officials should work together to identify innovative ways to share the spectrum.
Many technology leaders took that to mean DOD was stalling, and they questioned the accuracy of the $18 billion figure.
In a speech following the release of the report, Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell called the underlying message disappointing. "The thrust of the report seems to indicate that the executive branch is going to resist relinquishing more spectrum," he said at the time.
Another round of studies is under way. Through a private/public partnership with the Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee, which advises NTIA on a variety of spectrum policy issues, the government is generating a fresh spate of reports on the DOD-controlled spectrum band. The resulting recommendations are expected in June.
Finding ways to work together
Theoretically — and that’s the operative word — DOD has no problem moving out of the contested space. "If we had comparable spectrum to move to, the money from the auction to do it and the time to do it, we are in favor of relocating to alternative spectrum and freeing that spectrum up for commercial broadband users," Moorefield said.
But a number of obstacles stand in the way, Moorefield said, and part of the problem is a holdup at the FCC. Due to "the challenges that the FCC is having to displace the broadcasters out of the comparable spectrum that we need access to...we don’t have anywhere to move the federal or military system," he said.
Given the mind-numbing intricacies and technical challenges involved with moving DOD away from the 1755-1850 MHz band, the government is emphasizing a shared solution.
"The best solution right now is to explore ways of sharing," Moorefield said.
Larry Strickling, NTIA’s administrator, echoes that sentiment. NTIA "is working with industry and the agencies to explore innovative approaches that would allow federal and non-federal users to share the same swaths of spectrum," he said, noting that the government also has a growing need for those frequencies.
Publicly, industry leaders also want to find ways to share, but behind the scenes, they are pushing hard for DOD to clear that space. Industry executives regularly meet with key staffers on Capitol Hill to keep up the pressure.
"We explained to the staff why this spectrum is so important and why we think DOD can move," one lobbyist for the technology industry said regarding a recent meeting with the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
One sliver of the contested band of spectrum is already slated for auction. To the delight of industry and lawmakers, outgoing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski recently announced the agency’s intention to auction off the 1755-1780 MHz space as early as September 2014. Early on, the FCC had identified that particular section as low-hanging fruit; dealing with the remaining 70 MHz will continue to be a struggle.
In the meantime, Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T are working with DOD to explore ways to share the 1755-1850 MHz band, while some industry veterans advocate for more oversight of what DOD actually needs.
"The important question for Congress to be asking is, are those [military] operations and allocations mission-critical," said Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs at wireless trade association CTIA.
Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, suggested creating a process similar to the one that former Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) led back in the late 1980s to close obsolete military bases. An independent commission developed recommendations for shutting down a large number of bases, which saved the government billions of dollars.
Others say the White House needs to apply more pressure. However, Moorefield takes issue with criticisms that DOD is not moving fast enough.
"The record shows that DOD has invested a lot of resources toward trying to find a solution," he said. "We not only have the spectrum managers sitting around the table negotiating with the broadband community, we have...the guys who actually operate the equipment participating."
The reality is that resolving the technical challenges "is just plain difficult," Moorefield said. "I don’t think it’s that we are stalling."
The main reason the government is under growing pressure to give up a piece of the spectrum is because there is nowhere else left to look.
The FCC is already in the midst of reclaiming frequencies used by broadcasters through a process known as an incentive auction. Essentially, Uncle Sam will buy back spectrum from broadcasters and resell it to carriers. Dish Network, for example, is in the process of repurposing airwaves used for satellite communication to build a network that can fuel tablet PCs, smart phones and other devices. And the FCC is looking into several other creative ways to maximize the real estate available for commercial broadband. Although the process can be frustrating, a number of stakeholders are optimistic.
"I think [DOD officials] are actually engaging in a good-faith effort to work with the three carrier groups," Carpenter said. "It took a lot of time to get that [agreement] approved."
Others say DOD officials have become more open-minded since the discussions began several years ago. But at the end of the day, most of the spectrum game is about patience.
"It’s going to be a slow, hard march to reach the goals," one industry executive said.
Overview: 1755-1850 MHZ Band
(Refer to spectrum map at right)
- Fixed point-to-point microwave
- Military tactical radio relay
- Air combat training system
- Precision-guided munitions
- Law enforcement mobile video surveillance applications
- High-resolution (fixed or transportable) video data links for surveillance
- Tracking, telemetry and commanding for federal space systems
- Air-to-ground telemetry
- Land mobile robotic video functions (e.g. explosive ordnance disposal and hazardous material investigations and disposal)
- Unmanned aerial systems, unmanned aerial vehicles and remotely piloted vehicles
(Source: Commerce Department)
Eliza Krigman is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who covers technology and politics.