DOD official: Don't recklessly give away spectrum

Stylized radio tower

Feds need to get ready for even more urgent commercial demands for precious wireless spectrum, according to a top Pentagon IT official.

The conventional wisdom that has driven past auctions and reallocations of federally owned spectrum for commercial uses won't hold up under the limited supply of the resource and exploding demand from both federal and commercial users, said Maj. Gen. Robert Wheeler, deputy CIO for command, control, communications, computers and information infrastructure capabilities at the Defense Department.

Pressure on federal spectrum holders, including DOD, to free up space is increasing exponentially, Wheeler said. In January, the Federal Communications Commission auctioned off 65 MHz of coveted, internationally harmonized spectrum and pulled more than $40 billion into government coffers, but it was not enough to keep up with commercial demand, Wheeler said at a Nov. 5 event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Obama administration has set a goal of making 500 MHz of government and commercial spectrum available for wireless broadband use. But Wheeler said federal users should not relinquish spectrum recklessly.

During recent negotiations with commercial wireless providers, he said he was asked to give up a piece of bandwidth that DOD owned but wasn't using.

"Thank God it wasn't [turned over]," Wheeler said. "It's used to track in-bound missiles."

He added that DOD is running several pilot programs with U.S. telecommunications carriers to test bidirectional spectrum sharing. Although he declined to identify the carriers, he said participants are seeking a kind of give-and-take between military and commercial use of spectrum in certain areas of the country.

In remarks at the same event, FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel said there need to be more flexible and rewarding ways for federal agencies to move out of desirable spectrum or develop alternative communications networks and technology.

The "carrots not sticks" approach could be used for federal spectrum owners, but incentivizing them can be more complicated because the current cost-reimbursement process for moving systems to other technologies or capabilities is "too slow and creaky," she said.

Furthermore, agencies must have a uniform way to value spectrum and should be allowed to get some benefits from the sale of their spectrum, such as more flexible reimbursements for their spectrum relocation expenses, she said.

A bipartisan bill introduced in the House in March would give agencies the option of using funding from spectrum auctions to buy down their sequestration obligations under the Budget Control Act, in addition to relocating spectrum-based operations to another spot on the dial.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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