Obama asks agencies to share spectrum

large broadcasting antenna

Federal agencies are being asked to play nice with the private sector regarding their radio spectrum holdings, per a presidential memorandum issued June 14.

The move is in keeping with President Obama's plans to free up 500 MHz of spectrum for the creation of a nationwide wireless broadband network. Currently, government agencies tap their spectrum holdings for downlink transmissions for weather satellites, radio telemetry, radar detection, aircraft altimeters, law enforcement communications and other uses. Industry is particularly intent on getting access to the 1755-1850 MHz band, which is used commercially in 17 of the G-20 countries, but not in the United States.

Efforts to dislodge the Defense Department and other users -- including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Interior Department -- from coveted spectrum holdings have been ongoing for nearly a decade. While there is not a forcing mechanism in the memorandum to prod agencies to give up any of the 210 MHz of federally assigned spectrum that has been identified as potentially sharable with commercial users, a stick-and-carrot strategy is beginning to take shape. At present there isn't much stick, and even less carrot -- but the new plan appears designed to at least introduce more transparency into agencies' use of spectrum holdings.

Agencies have one year to report on how they are actually using the spectrum that National Telecommunications and Information Administration has identified as ripe for sharing with commercial users, and sets a relatively high bar for agencies who might seek to maintain exclusive use of their spectrum. The administration memo asks agencies to identify spectrum that can be shared or released, "without adversely effecting agencies' missions, especially those related to national security, law enforcement, and safety of life."

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The search for more spectrum

Under the memorandum, the government will publish an inventory of facilities for the testing of spectrum-sharing technologies in three months, and in six months create a plan to push forward with standards and best practices on sharing spectrum between federal and commercial users. NTIA is authorized to "take such actions as are necessary" to make sure that agencies are reporting their actual spectrum usage within their assigned frequencies, suggesting that agencies that are not making full use of their holdings will be encouraged to relinquish or share out their spectrum.

"The Presidential Memorandum will encourage greater collaboration between industry and the government necessary to facilitate greater sharing of spectrum and ensure agencies will utilize spectrum as efficiently as possible," NTIA administrator Lawrence Strickling said in a statement.

Former Republican Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell would prefer to see the government relinquish spectrum to the private sector wherever it is practicable, as opposed to sharing. "Under Congressional oversight, the Executive Branch should conduct a thorough, transparent and honest audit of all federal spectrum with the intent of producing plentiful auctions for exclusive use licenses. Such a scenario would yield far better results than mere spectrum 'sharing,'" he told FCW.

A new Spectrum Policy Team, chaired by representatives from the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and the National Economic Council, will work with NTIA to implement the directives of the memorandum. They are specifically tasked with coming up with "market-based or other approaches" to incentivize agencies to share or part with spectrum.

The move was accompanied by news of $100 million in federal research into spectrum sharing. The National Science Foundation is kicking in $23 million into spectrum-sharing research. The Defense Department will spend $60 million on developing spectrum-sharing technology over the next five years, with Commerce awarding another $17.5 million through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the National Institute for Standards and Technology. NTIA and NIST are collaborating on a new Center for Advanced Communications in Boulder, Colo., which will study and test approaches to spectrum sharing.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is FCW's senior staff writer, and covers Congress, health IT and governmentwide IT policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @thisismaz.

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