Spectrum challenges draw debate

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) wants to scrap the piece-by-piece method that the United States uses to manage the wireless spectrum for government and commercial entities and intends to offer legislation to improve the system.

Burns, the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Communications Subcommittee, which handles spectrum allocation, said April 8 that details of his proposal are being worked out and the legislation may be introduced later this year.

He said he intended to work closely with Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) on the legislation. Inouye is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee, and Stevens is the ranking member.

Spectrum is a hot topic in communications circles because there is never enough to satisfy all of the government agencies and private-sector businesses that use it for services including wireless telephone calls, satellite communications and weapons guidance.

Burns hopes to hold hearings on the subject and is waiting for a General Accounting Office report on spectrum issues due this summer, according to Megan Morris, his press secretary.

Burns is taking the most appropriate tack in addressing the issue, said John Wohlfarth, a research analyst at the Anser Institute for Homeland Security.

"Using the GAO [report] and formalizing the process will serve to slow things down, [which is] very important when you're not entirely certain where you're going," Wohlfarth said. "In terms of homeland security, we are still in virgin territory, and without much guidance. Getting things right in the outset by working toward a solution methodically will save us a lot of headaches — and litigation — in the future."

Burns' announcement came just days after a spectrum summit that featured leaders from the Federal Communications Commission, which manages the nation's commercial telecommunications spectrum, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is responsible for the public sector, on the same podium for the first time.

NTIA's responsibilities for spectrum management include the Defense Department, the federal government's largest spectrum user. Therefore, the sight of Nancy Victory, NTIA administrator, and Michael Powell, FCC chairman, co-moderating the April 4 discussion on spectrum management issues signified a quantum leap forward in addressing the nation's myriad spectrum obstacles.

But participants agreed that the groundbreaking discussion was just the first step down a long road.

John Stenbit, DOD's chief information officer, said he was concerned about the prospect of shifting certain spectrum or sharing with commercial partners because DOD assumes all the risk and liability if something goes wrong.

The current spectrum management system's bureaucracy is a large part of the problem, Stenbit said. "There are too many layered, bureaucratic processes and too few market-based issues," he said.

Michael Duffy, director of the Justice Department's telecommunications services staff, agreed. "The uncertainty of the [spectrum management] process from the end user's point of view" hinders planning for the future, Duffy said.

But there's also a bright side to the problem, he noted. "The current processes, because they're so bogged down, let us know that changes aren't going to happen too quickly, which mitigates the risk," he said.

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