Spectrum leaders on same wavelength

The sight of leaders from the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration sitting side by side, moderating a discussion panel April 4 of government and industry spectrum managers, signified a quantum leap forward in addressing the nation's myriad spectrum obstacles. But the panelists agreed it was just the first step on a long road.

The FCC manages the nation's commercial telecommunications spectrum and NTIA is responsible for the public sector — including the Defense Department, the federal government's largest user, said Nancy Victory, NTIA administrator. She added that NTIA's Spectrum Summit, which ends today, is the "first in a series of dialogues I hope to convene on spectrum management."

Spectrum is a hot topic in communications circles because there's never enough to satisfy all the stakeholders, who use it for services ranging from wireless telephone calls to satellite communications to weapons guidance.

Victory moderated a broad discussion on spectrum management issues alongside FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who noted that about 56 percent of the available spectrum is eligible for shared government/commercial use because 30 percent is designated for exclusive commercial use, and slightly more than 13 percent for exclusive government use.

The panel, which included representatives from DOD, the Justice Department and companies such as VoiceStream Wireless and Motorola Inc., applauded Powell and Victory for appearing together and vowing to work together. But panel members also told the government's spectrum leaders that bureaucracy is a large part of the problem.

"There are too many layered, bureaucratic processes and too few market-based issues," said John Stenbit, DOD chief information officer, responding to a question from Victory about the greatest "negative" facing spectrum users.

Most of the panelists agreed with Stenbit's assessment, including Michael Duffy, director of Justice's telecommunications services staff, who managed to half-jokingly turn that into a positive notion.

"The uncertainty of the process from the end user's point of view" hinders planning for the future, Duffy said. "But 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."

Stenbit and Duffy also were asked to assess the greatest spectrum management change coming in the next five years.

"We need to find a way to more efficiently use technology to get ahead of this allocation game to take advantage of some of the gaps" between government and commercial systems, Stenbit said.

Duffy noted that federal law enforcement organizations are going toward more commercial solutions, which would mean that the need "to cordon off spectrum" for those users will decline.

Dennis Roberson, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Motorola, said that even with government and commercial entities constantly clamoring for more, "most of the spectrum, most of the places, most of the time is unused," opening the door for greater collaboration in the future.

Stenbit agreed and said the ongoing operations in Afghanistan, coupled with DOD's domestic homeland security responsibilities, have caused the department to change its opinion about its spectrum requirements. He added that DOD doesn't use all of its spectrum efficiently, such as that reserved for guiding munitions on test ranges, but he would only share that spectrum with a commercial entity if it would take responsibility should a device mistakenly hit a city.

None of the commercial vendors said they wanted to assume that risk.

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