Why it's getting harder to find sharable federal spectrum

The government is sitting on a goldmine of radio spectrum that could be used to accelerate 5G deployment, but crafting a coordinated policy to get there is complicated.

cell tower Stock photo ID: 122758183 By Christian Delber
 

The government is sitting on a goldmine of radio spectrum that could be used to accelerate 5G deployment, but crafting a coordinated policy to get there is complicated.

One obvious way is to provide incentives for federal agencies to relinquish their spectrum holdings for commercialization. But too often that's presented as a zero sum game rather than a win-win. Agencies are looking for more innovative ways to share their holdings and perhaps get better capabilities too, said experts at a June 12 spectrum meeting in Washington.

Even finding spectrum that can be easily vacated is becoming harder and harder, said David Redl, the Commerce Department's assistant secretary for communications and information and director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

NTIA played host to its first-ever spectrum policy symposium on June 12, as the downtown streets filled with red-shirted revelers headed to a parade and rally to celebrate the Washington Capitols' Stanley Cup win.

NTIA and other federal agencies are looking to collaborate with industry on how to create a guiding national strategy to implement next-generation wireless services, particularly 5G. Sharing spectrum will be a big part of that push, according to Redl and other spectrum resource and wireless industry experts at the event.

"The reality of sharing is here," said Tom Power, senior vice president and general counsel at CTIA, which represents the wireless industry in a panel discussion at the event that covered a range of spectrum issues.

Although numerous research efforts are underway to improve and coordinate sharing efforts among federal agencies and commercial industry, the White House's proposed 2019 budget contains a potentially useful tool. The measure would allow federal agencies to lease their spectrum for commercial use, instead of vacating it outright.

That proposal has intrigued some agencies looking to keep their spectrum and possibly upgrade their capabilities using it at the same time.

However, industry, federal agencies and the DOD pointed to thorny problems that would have to be worked through by industry and federal agencies before such a tool could be used.

If the measure is approved, said Rachel Bender, wireless and international advisor to the Federal Communications Commission chairman, her agency would have to set up the basic procedures of how the process would work.

The DOD would have pragmatic questions, according to Col. Frederick Williams, senior analyst, spectrum policy and international engagements, in the Air Force CIO's office.

"Who would qualify for a lease?" he asked. "What technical characteristics would they have? Who gets the money? Would NTIA get a cut?"

"It's not about the money," said Williams. "It's about access. It's a 'here's what I need'" approach federal agencies could leverage in leasing their spectrum, perhaps getting more advanced capability they could get from the company leasing the spectrum.

Leasing federal spectrum, said Power, would also entail commercial providers rethinking what they're trying to get out of the lease. That model, he said, would go against basic business models of carriers, which invest in building out network facilities to commercialize the leased federal spectrum.

Carl Burleson, acting deputy administrator at the Federal Aviation Administration, said federal should not only look for how they can share spectrum among themselves, but also explore shared technology platforms that can serve as a foundation for their services.

He pointed to the Spectrum Efficient National Surveillance Radar Program, or SENSR, partnership that would combine surveillance, air safety and weather radar applications into a single "system of systems" by 2024. The FAA, DOD, Customs and Border Protection and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are the partnering agencies.

When mission capabilities are closely related or share similar needs, he said, "we've seen the ability to share platforms as well as spectrum."

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