White House team seeks answers on agency spectrum management

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The White House team charged with getting federal agencies to relinquish or share spectrum with commercial users is seeking input on the shape and scope of a new government policy. The move is the latest step in a long-standing Obama administration goal of freeing up 500 MHz of spectrum for use in wireless broadband to meet the growing demand for data-intensive mobile services.

So far, getting agencies to give up their spectrum has been a challenge.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Commerce Department component charged with managing federal spectrum holdings, has identified more than 400 MHz of spectrum that could be converted to commercial use. A presidential memorandum issued in June 2013 ordered a set of new policies to incentivize agencies to give up their spectrum holdings or share them using a set of technologies being developed by the private sector in partnership with the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

In a Feb. 14 blog post, Tom Power, U.S. deputy chief technology officer for telecommunications, announced that the White House's Spectrum Policy Team was seeking comments through March 20 on ways to incentivize agencies to share or relinquish spectrum.

To seed the discussion, a new report from the Institute for Defense Analyses prepared on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy outlines nine possible approaches to giving agencies incentives to share or relinquish spectrum holdings. Although the report does not recommend any particular method, it does offer guidance on which solutions offer the path of least resistance in terms of technical feasibility, current law and the value of any incentives provided to agencies.

Six of the nine solutions are market-based and seek to spur agency cooperation by giving them a share in the proceeds of commercial deals involving their spectrum. They are:

  • Charging market rates to agency users to encourage movement away from fallow spectrum.
  • Establishing a governmentwide funding pool from the proceeds of spectrum auctions to help agencies cover the costs of moving spectrum-dependent operations.
  • Giving agencies the right to pool and lease their own spectrum on the market.
  • Letting agencies lease spectrum to meet short-term demand, in a process similar to keyword auctions on search engines.
  • Adopting a tiered access model that would give priority to federal users but allow licensed commercial users to access available channels.
  • Creating a "superhighway" of 1,000 MHz of shared spectrum that would be open to commercial and federal users, an approach the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has looked into.

However, some of the more ambitious sharing strategies fail to take into account the fact that commercial users rely on exclusive access to spectrum for marketing purposes, and some of the entrepreneurial approaches might not offer enough incentives to federal users.

Bipartisan legislation proposed in the House would incentivize agencies to relinquish spectrum by allowing them to recoup 1 percent of auction proceeds to offset sequester cuts. The report cautions that given the federal budget uncertainty and with incentive auctions so far in the future, the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act might not offer enough to push agencies to free up spectrum.

Furthermore, the federal government could direct agencies to reallocate and share spectrum without using incentives. One approach would be to create an independent body to make spectrum decisions along the lines of the commission that consolidated military bases. One way to help implement this policy would be to require agencies to justify their current holdings in a one-time review of spectrum allocations. That review would provide a complete picture of federal spectrum holdings. Such a view is sorely needed, even though agencies are required to furnish information on spectrum assignments and use to NTIA and the president's Spectrum Policy Team by June 2014, as detailed in the presidential memo.

A more direct approach would establish a spectrum auditor at the Office of Management and Budget to identify underused spectrum. OMB has taken an increased role in spectrum management since a 2012 update to budget guidelines instructed agencies to take spectrum efficiency into account when making procurement decisions. The report notes that OMB oversight "may be more immediately implementable than several of the other approaches outlined in this report, even if their lack of reliance on agency incentives could result in sub-optimal federal spectrum allocations."

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the About.com online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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