Can feds share America's 'invisible infrastructure'?

Lawmakers are mulling bills that would encourage agencies to hand spectrum over to the data-hungry private sector.

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There is bipartisan support for legislation to free up federal spectrum for commercial use, but progress is slow because incentives and engineering demands must be worked out, experts say.

"Spectrum is our invisible infrastructure of the 21st century," said Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), one of many lawmakers to praise proposed bipartisan legislation during an Oct. 7 hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Communications and Technology Subcommittee.

The legislation's main thrust is incentivizing agencies to relinquish spectrum for the private sector and exploring new frontiers for opening up spectrum. The committee is hoping to accomplish those goals with two pieces of legislation: The Federal Spectrum Incentive Act of 2015 would enable agencies to buy down sequester obligations by giving up spectrum, and the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2015, still in draft form, would direct the Federal Communications Commission to report to Congress on future prospects for opening up spectrum.

"If done thoughtfully and in collaboration with Congress, agencies and other stakeholders, creative solutions to increase spectrum availability have the opportunity to be a rare win-win-win in public policy," said Phillip Berenbroick, general counsel at nonprofit organization Public Knowledge.

Not represented at the hearing were leaders of the agencies that would be asked to give up spectrum. Federal agencies currently control more than 18 percent of all available spectrum, Berenbroick noted, adding that much of the reserved spectrum is only used intermittently.

The Obama administration has pledged to open up 500 MHz of spectrum from federal and nonfederal sources for commercial wireless broadband by 2020. So far, 245 MHz of spectrum have been tapped for commercial uses, according to a July blog post by Paige Atkins, associate administrator of the Office of Spectrum Management at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. At today's hearing, lawmakers were bullish on the prospect of incentivizing agencies to relinquish control.

"Money always does it -- almost always, anyway," said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).

But witnesses agreed incentives would need to be flexible and that some agencies might never voluntarily give up spectrum.

Sharing spectrum would help telecom companies address the American public's insatiable desire for mobile broadband access, and witnesses said a great deal of sharing could be done on particular spectrum bands without disrupting existing uses.

"I think technology does solve this [sharing] problem," said Dennis Roberson, a research professor in computer science at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

But as with the question of incentives, the engineering behind switching bands and sharing spectrum must be supported by well-funded studies before any major changes are made, warned Jeffrey Reed, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Virginia Tech.

"Policy needs to be grounded in good engineering," he said.

And as with all things, communication and collaboration will ease the transition. "We need to make sure it's not DOT versus AT&T," Reed said. "We don't want to go there."

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