New FCC rulemaking could set up a spectrum superhighway

The spectrum in question is used by federal agencies, which would share frequencies with commercial entities.

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Even by federal standards, movement on spectrum policy seems to occur in glacial, barely observable increments. But a plan to create a massive, sharable, dynamic spectrum superhighway to support Wi-Fi and other broadband applications is on the horizon, with consequences for federal agencies that have spectrum holdings.

At its next open meeting on April 23, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on a plan to make 150 MHz of spectrum in the 3550-3700 band available for wireless broadband use. The spectrum in question is used by federal agencies, which will remain incumbent users but share the frequencies with commercial entities.

Spectrum sharing is part of a larger Obama administration policy that has been in the works for several years to build the nation's wireless broadband infrastructure. The establishment of the 150 MHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service, as proposed in the FCC rulemaking, would set up a system of sharing that allows for small-cell services, including Wi-Fi, to dynamically buy, aggregate and trade licenses to supply broadband connectivity.

The new order would supplant the existing method of moving spectrum from the public to the private sector. Currently, agencies are compensated for the cost of relocating operations to new frequencies, but there are no major incentives to push agencies to vacate spectrum.

"Rather than pick up federal systems and [move] them, let's look for opportunities where they lie," said Tom Power, the White House deputy chief technology officer who coordinates the administration's efforts on spectrum. Speaking at a recent New America Foundation event, Power noted that until now, moving operations was a kind of status quo for agencies. By contrast, the new approach allows agencies that have fallow or underused spectrum to share it with little impact on their operations.

At the same time, Congress is seeking to develop new methods of compensating agencies that choose to vacate spectrum that commercial users want. Reps. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) and Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) have proposed legislation that would allow agencies to receive revenue from the FCC auctions of their spectrum holdings, which could be used to offset sequestration cuts.

The administration is hoping to launch a pilot program, still in the planning stages, to monitor spectrum use with the goal of identifying opportunities for sharing.

"It's trickier than it might sound," Power said. "In some cases, what a federal system is doing is listening for potential threats from overseas or from space. Just because you don't hear anything doesn't mean there isn't activity going on."

The 3550-3700 MHz band had a lot of incumbent uses, including fixed satellite services, said John Liebovitz, deputy chief of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau and spectrum adviser to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "The precondition for gaining access is trust," Liebovitz said at the New America Foundation event. "We're not going to have trust if there's not a sense from the federal side that they can validate that the system is behaving the way it should be."

That confidence is especially important on the military side, he added, where systems "do things that you don't think about and don't want to think about. They need to work when they need to work." There are also concerns about sharing information on military systems with a database that is part of the operation of a commercial system.

Furthermore, spectrum-sharing technology must prove itself in the field before any of those services become reality. At a February press briefing, Maj. Gen. Robert Wheeler, a deputy CIO at the Defense Department, said spectrum sharing was promising at this point but noted that large-scale tests had yet to be conducted.

"That is something that we are working with industry right now, to see where we can go with that in the future and how much we can or can't do," he said. "Those questions haven't been answered yet."

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