The battle for spectrum
Growing demand and a finite supply of radio frequencies could force confrontation — and compromise — between the U.S. government and competing global interests
- By Bob Brewin
- Mar 12, 2007
Radio frequency spectrum isn’t something you can see, touch or feel, but like other commodities in short supply, the Earth’s radio frequencies are increasingly valuable as economic and strategic resources.
The organization that decides how spectrum should be allocated for different purposes is the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency. It will host the World Radiocommunication Conference this fall to allocate global radio frequencies among competing interests — a highly competitive event that insiders refer to as the Wireless Olympics.
Spectrum issues include the demands of an emerging fixed-wireless broadband industry, the performance of ship and airborne military radar, and the desire of shortwave broadcasters to operate in a frequency that the U.S. federal government wants to use for data communications for military and homeland security purposes.
Spectrum is the raw material of mobile and cellular networks that have transformed the way people communicate. It has liberated the phone from its wired tether and made anywhere, anytime communication possible for teenagers and millions of people in China, the world’s largest mobile phone market.
That finite resource has spawned armies of BlackBerry-toting executives and road warrior students tapping Wi-Fi hot spots in airports and coffee shops to check e-mail and browse the Web. Remote-sensing satellites use a slice of the spectrum to monitor the weather. Massive arrays of satellite dishes dedicated to radio astronomy rely on radio spectrum to probe the mysteries of the cosmos at the beginning of time.
But spectrum remains a limited resource, and authorities must allocate it to meet the requirements of emerging communications technologies and, at the same time, protect the radio frequencies that older forms of defense and public-safety communications require.World radio conference
Every three to four years the ITU hosts the World Radiocommunication Conference for delegations from its 191 member states and 600 sector members. The sector delegates represent telecommunications companies, such as AT&T, and digital technology companies, such as Intel. The conference is the venue in which the ITU sets policies for allocating radio frequency spectrum.
The ITU held its last world conference in 2003. At that time, it established global allocations for Wi-Fi spectrum in the 2.4 Ghz and 5 GHz bands, a decision that transformed Wi-Fi into a global phenomenon and enriched numerous companies, including Intel, the Linksys division of Cisco Systems and Wi-Fi chipset manufacturers Atheros and Broadcom.
The world conference this fall in Geneva is one that Richard Russell, associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, calls the Wireless Olympics because of the many competing spectrum demands that its participants must resolve. Russell will lead the U.S. delegation as its ambassador.
The 2007 World Radiocommunication Conference will make spectrum allocations that are critical for new and emerging technologies of economic importance to the U.S. high-tech industry. “This is our opportunity to move the ball forward on new services [backed] by U.S. companies, which will be good for the economy,” Russell said.
In his role as leader of the U.S. delegation, Russell said he must balance U.S. industry interests in spectrum’s economic value against national security and other public needs. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which defines those public requirements, has raised questions about new services and technologies that impinge on spectrum that DOD says it needs for strategic and tactical command-and-control
The Federal Communications Commission is responsible for developing initial industry positions for the U.S. delegation to the conference. For that decision-making, the FCC relies on the World Radiocommunication Conference 2007 Advisory Committee and five informal working groups to assess spectrum needs. Those groups held their first meetings in February 2004.
During that preconference period, the working groups approve drafts and present them to the conference advisory committee. The advisory committee forwards the drafts that it approves to the FCC, which publishes them for public comment. The consensus reached after the public comment period will inform the positions that the United States takes at the world conference.
With the conference eight months away, the United States is far from reaching consensus on many contested issues. Russell said a hot question will be who gets to operate in the 698 MHz to 806 MHz radio frequency band.
That question appeared to be settled after participants at the 1992 and 2000 world conferences set aside those spectrum bands for broadband wireless mobile or cellular services. Since then, however, an emerging fixed-wireless broadband industry — with backing from Intel — has decided it needs to operate in those same frequencies. It wants to offer the public a high-speed wireless alternative to high-speed Internet service that cable and phone companies now provide.
The FCC is the present battleground on which Intel and its allies are fighting existing wireless carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint Nextel and others — to influence the U.S. position on use of that high-speed radio frequency band. Nancy Victory, a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm Wiley Rein and chairwoman of the FCC advisory committee, said the two industry sides appear to be so far apart that the U.S. delegation might go to the world conference with two opposing views on the use of the 698 MHz to 806 MHz band. Russell, however, said he is confident that the United States will end up with a unified position on the contested spectrum that will satisfy all industry segments before he heads to Geneva.
While that question is debated in the months preceding the conference, DOD is concerned about how the ITU will rule on frequencies that the department uses for navigation and mobile communications. The ITU must decide whether to let industry use those spectrum bands for new broadband mobile services. Badri Younes, DOD’s director of spectrum management, said allowing broadband mobile services to operate in those frequencies could degrade the performance of ship and airborne radars and mobile communications systems.
The frequencies in which DOD has a stake are the 410 MHz to 430 MHz band that fixed and older mobile communications systems use, the 2700 MHz to 2900 MHz band on which pilots rely for radio navigation, and the 3400 MHz to 3650 MHz radio frequency band that ship and airborne radars use.
DOD also has an interest in whether the ITU decides to protect high-frequency (HF) spectrum from encroachment by shortwave broadcasters worldwide. All three military services rely on HF for long-range terrestrial communications.
Fighting to retain control of the HF bands might seem like a last-ditch stand to keep horse-drawn buggies, some spectrum experts say. Broadcasters, such as the BBC, have moved from HF and now rely on satellite and Internet feeds.
But the development of high-quality digital radio broadcasting technology has changed the picture and made HF suddenly more appealing. Shortwave broadcasters worldwide want the ITU to allocate to them as much as 800 KHz of additional spectrum in the HF band from 4 MHz to 10 MHz.
A new golden age
Analog shortwave broadcasts are typically interrupted by hisses and pops. But the new technology, Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), will enable shortwave broadcasters to transmit programs thousands of miles with the signal quality and audio clarity of FM radio, said Nigel Holmes, transmission manager at Radio Australia.
DRM could lead to a golden age for shortwave broadcasting, Holmes said.
Broadcasters worldwide — the BBC, Deutsche Welle in Germany, Radio France, Radio Sweden, Radio Canada and Radio New Zealand — have embraced it. The National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters in the United States, most of whose members are religious broadcasters, supports DRM, and it has urged the FCC to push for allocating additional HF spectrum for broadcasting.
But Eric Johnson, professor of engineering at New Mexico State University and a member of the AFCEA International HF Industry Association, said HF is equally well-positioned to support a golden age of data communications. Thanks to new standards, some of which Johnson helped develop, HF can support data rates of 9,600 bits/sec in a 3 KHz channel and 64 bits/sec in a 12 KHz channel.
In an era in which users can access the Internet at speeds measured in megabytes of data, 64 bits/sec does seem like horse-drawn buggy speed, but it exceeds the data rate of satellite communication systems on some of the Navy’s smallest ships, Johnson said. The Air Force already relies on HF in its High Frequency Global Communications System to transmit e-mail messages to airlifters the Air Mobility Command operates.
The Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection organization operates a nationwide HF network to communicate with its boats, planes, helicopters and vehicular assets, Johnson said. Australia and the United Kingdom recently installed new HF networks. Those DHS and overseas networks could be undermined if shortwave broadcasters receive expanded HF spectrum allocations, Johnson said.
Younes said HF spectrum is critical to DOD’s combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and relief operations such as those DOD conducted in late 2004 and early 2005 after a tsunami hit many Asian and Indian Ocean countries. DOD must protect HF spectrum from broadcasters’ incursions as it develops new Internet-based applications for HF, he said. HF is essential for communications with partner countries in multinational coalitions, many of whom use it as their sole means of communications, he added.
The FCC has deliberated but has not reached a decision about whether to back the shortwave broadcasters or the government’s tactical and mobile users of HF spectrum. Johnson said the FCC needs to side with DOD and other federal stakeholders and do so well ahead of the conference to protect HF spectrum that DOD and other federal agencies use. Many countries are waiting to learn the U.S. policy position before they solidify their own, and an early signal from the United States could slow the broadcasters’ momentum in seeking additional HF spectrum, he said.Remote-sensing applications
Another contested frequency is the 36 GHz to 37 GHz band. The National Academy of Sciences, for example, wants the United States to push for mandatory power limits on communications satellites operating in that band to protect satellite-sensing systems in the Earth Exploration Satellite Service. U.S. government and nongovernmental entities operate that service.
The academy informed the FCC that scientists rely on that band for passive sensing of the Earth’s surface and atmospheric conditions. Scientists say they have little flexibility in choosing frequencies to conduct their remote-sensing observations because the specific frequencies of observed elements, such as the absorption and emission of passive microwave radiation, are established by the laws of physics and chemistry.
But the Satellite Industry Association, which represents satellite operators, service providers and manufacturers, has told the FCC that it opposes mandatory power limits on communications satellites. Any such limits would harm the development of new services and technologies that the satellite industry wants to offer, it said.
The competing demands don’t end there. The airline industry and the Federal Aviation Administration have put in their bid for additional spectrum for flight test telemetry. Boeing says it needs access to additional radio frequencies to support a near-doubling of the test data that the FAA now requires before certifying commercial aircraft.
Boeing says it monitored 64,000 test points in 1995 to certify its 777 airliner. It expects to monitor 100,000 test points for its new fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliner series aircraft that will carry 250 to 330 passengers. Younes agreed that a failure to gain additional spectrum for flight testing would inevitably cause schedule delays and cost increases for Boeing and other airplane manufacturers.
Russell said his goal in representing the U.S. is to be competitive in that and other high-profile spectrum contests at the Wireless Olympics, where going for the gold will mean more to the United States than winning a coveted medal.