Panel to resolve spectrum debate

The White House fact sheet on spectrum management

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The Bush administration announced an initiative June 5 to resolve a long-standing dispute between the public and private sectors about radio airwave availability.

A new approach is intended to balance the often competing interests of the Defense Department, law enforcement and other agencies that rely on satellite-based communications, with the economic interests of mobile phone, satellite television and other service providers.

Industry groups, seeing explosive growth in business, have been pressuring the federal government to open up segments of the radio spectrum currently reserved for defense, transportation and public safety.

But DOD and other government users worry that commercial use could interfere with vital communications, such as air traffic control or satellite-based Global Positioning System applications.

"Recent years have witnessed an explosion of spectrum-based technologies and uses of wireless and voice data communication systems," according to a White House memo issued last week. "The existing legal and policy framework for spectrum management has not kept pace with the dramatic changes in technology and spectrum use."

The initiative, led by the Commerce Department, includes two actions: developing an interagency federal spectrum task force to recommend policies, and convening public meetings to focus on use by state and local governments. Commerce officials could not be reached for comment.

"You had a resource and now it's very crowded," said Jim Lewis, senior fellow and director of the technology program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The president has initiated a study to find ways to use spectrum more efficiently. This is a good thing."

Historically, Congress has bullied DOD to give up space for industry use, Lewis said. But the department's recent technology advances in spectrum use and an improving political position have eased that pressure.

A DOD spokesman said officials "don't automatically go into a defensive crouch every time someone suggests spectrum can be allocated more efficiently."

DOD officials work hard to ensure the department uses spectrum efficiently, the spokesman said. When possible, they cooperate with those from other agencies and industries to find effective ways to manage the spectrum while keeping in mind their mission. "National security is our paramount concern," he said.

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Shifting lanes

Think of the radio spectrum as a swimming pool with roped-off lanes, said Jim Lewis, senior fellow and director of the technology program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In the past, the government has managed spectrum by dividing it into paths, leaving space between each frequency to guard against interference. A reorganization of spectrum use offers the possibility that the large spaces between paths — or the lanes — are unnecessary, Lewis said.

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