Agencies face static in spectrum relocation

Shutterstock image (by kstudija): telecommunications radio tower. 

Federal agencies have an increasingly effective set of incentives to relocate their spectrum operations, but budgetary, operational and institutional constraints remain, said a panel of wireless market experts.

Federal agencies sit on a vast amount of wireless spectrum that is becoming increasing valuable to commercial wireless carriers, whose customers are demanding more and more bandwidth for video and apps.

The effort to dislodge federal users from commercially viable spectrum has spanned multiple administrations, but the trick has been to find ways to encourage agencies to relocate.

"The biggest problem challenge at agencies is that once there is a focus on a [wireless] band, it thinks it's going to be forced out" in favor of auctioning off that resource to industry, said Steve Sharkey, vice president of  government affairs, technology and engineering policy at T-Mobile USA. Federal agencies are "reluctant to discuss" relocation "without a clear path ahead" for them.

However, according to Sharkey, things are looking up with agencies seeing the value of their spectrum holdings and listening to how they might move off of it with more effective solutions.

"Overall there has been progress," in federal agencies' relocating and freeing up spectrum, he said. The Spectrum Relocation Fund has helped those efforts, he said, and has opened some doors at federal agencies. Sharkey said the Defense Department, in particular, has had a "mind shift" in regards to spectrum relocation and is listening to options.

The path forward for federal agency spectrum relocation, according to industry and agency panelists at a May 17 Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event, depends on perseverance.

Innovative approaches give federal agencies a way to squeeze value out of their spectrum and potentially provide their users with better wireless solutions, said John Leibovitz, former deputy chief of the FCC's Wireless Bureau and special advisor to the chairman for spectrum.

The Federal Aviation Administration's Spectrum Efficient National Surveillance Radar Program, or SENSR, for example, would free up spectrum by combining four agencies' surveillance, air safety and weather radar applications into a single "system of systems" by 2024.

Similarly combining wireless airborne platforms used by the Defense Department for combat training and air telemetry applications, he said, could offer additional paths for freeing up wide swaths of spectrum.

Budgeting and operational challenges still dog the efforts, as do industry bottom line issues, according to panelists.

For instance, wireless equipment makers haven't cracked how they can develop platforms that can address multiple federal agencies' wireless networking needs, said Mary Brown, senior director of government affairs at Cisco Systems.

Additionally, Leibovitz pointed out that the Office of Management and Budget typically doesn't like to look forward more than 10 years to fund agencies' plans to relocate to other spectrum under the Spectrum Relocation Fund. That can put a crimp in long range moves, he said.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is working on a significant tool that could help. The agency's Institute for Telecommunication Sciences is defining metrics on spectrum efficiency, said the agency's chief economist Giulia McHenry. The work will ultimately come up with numbers that federal agencies can use in business cases for relocating.

However, the problem of exactly who within a given federal agency will use those metrics to make decisions about moving is still unclear in many cases, according to the panelists.

"Within federal agencies there is no clear handle on who is making those decisions," McHenry said.

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 [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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