NTIA Recommends Sharing Government Airwaves With Wireless Carriers

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By Paul Barbagallo  

The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration has proposed freeing a 95 MHz block of radio spectrum in 1755-1850 MHz band that is now controlled by the federal government for use by wireless carriers, part of a multi-agency effort to nearly double the airwaves available for mobile broadband uses over the next 10 years.

In a much-anticipated report issued March 27, the NTIA concluded that it is possible to reallocate the entire block for either exclusive or shared use by commercial companies, but how much will be made exclusively available is still unclear.

The agency, which oversees the spectrum licenses for all government agencies, warned in the report that some federal licensees “could remain in the band indefinitely.”

NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling underscored that point in an afternoon conference call with reporters, saying that spectrum sharing “will be and must be a vital component” of the government's efforts.

Spectrum sharing “will be and must be a vital component”of the government's efforts to make spectrum available for mobile broadband.

NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling The spectrum in the 1755-1850 MHz band, among the most coveted by the wireless industry, is immediately adjacent to a 25 MHz tranche of frequencies already allocated for mobile broadband uses—what is known as AWS-3, or Advanced Wireless Services, spectrum at 2155-2180 MHz.

The 1755-1850 MHz band is currently licensed to a number of different agencies, including the departments of Energy and Homeland Security, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Department of Defense.

Among those agencies, the DOD has long resisted surrendering any of its licenses in the band, which are used for everything from receiving satellite pictures to communicating to missiles and tanks.

The DOD now appears willing to at least relocate to other spectrum bands.

The Pentagon has identified the 2025-2110 MHz band as the preferred band to relocate most of operations to, the 5091-5250 MHz band specifically for federal aeronautical mobile telemetry.

Other agencies have pinpointed the 1435-1525 MHz, 1675-1695 MHz, and 220-2290 MHz bands for video surveillance operations, according to the NTIA report.

In all, relocation costs are estimated to total roughly $18 billion.

For fixed point-to-point microwaves, relocation costs will be $186 million; military tactical radio relay operations, $160 million; air combat training systems, $4.5 billion; precision-guided munitions, $518 million; tracking, telemetry, and commanding systems, $2.35 billion; aeronautical mobile telemetry, $3.1 billion; video surveillance, $5 billion; and unmanned aerial systems, $1.5 billion. A classified companion to the NTIA report details the costs of relocating certain national security systems. Even after relocating some operations, the DOD will still need “indefinite access” to the 1755-1850 MHz band for electronic warfare training at specific sites, the NTIA said.

Current statute requires that spectrum auction proceeds must be more than federal relocation costs. As such, the NTIA noted that any repurposing option needs to “promote economic value while ensuring no loss of critical federal capabilities.”

Wireless industry stakeholders gave measured praise to the NTIA for its report, noting that time is of essence to make spectrum available for mobile broadband.

“The NTIA's report indicates that the federal government is aggressively addressing the need to make more spectrum available for wireless mobile services,” said Tom Tauke, Verizon's executive vice president for public affairs, policy, and communications, in a statement March 27. “This is good news for consumers. While the report appropriately indicates that there will be hurdles and limitations in repurposing the 1755-1850 MHz band for commercial use, its focus on achieving that objective is very encouraging.”

Joan Marsh, AT&T's vice president of federal regulatory affairs, similarly credited Strickling for “moving aggressively and creatively toward the reallocation” of 1755-1850 MHz band spectrum.

After further meetings with industry and federal spectrum users, NTIA plans to issue a formal recommendation to the FCC.

The FCC will then decide which blocks of spectrum can be auctioned to wireless carriers and which blocks can be shared by federal and commercial users.

FCC Chair Praises Report, Spectrum Sharing.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski also welcomed the release of the report, noting the “real and unique” opportunity to free spectrum for broadband uses.

“NTIA's report demonstrates both the importance of making government spectrum available for commercial mobile broadband, and the challenges to doing so,” Genachowski said in a press statement March 27. “This is particularly true when considering the full 1755-1850 MHz band, where repurposing the entire band would be very expensive, affect important federal uses and commercial broadcast services, and could take a decade or more. Because federal law requires that revenue from auctioning federal spectrum exceed the relocation costs, these are serious issues and potential obstacles.”

Genachowski further agreed with the NTIA's recommendation to explore opportunities to share spectrum between federal and commercial users.

The NTIA report indicated that commercial broadband networks could share the band with federal incumbents for several years, but Genachowski said such sharing over a longer period of time should be pursued as an “alternative to a costly, complex, and disruptive relocation effort.”

As part of an Obama administration directive to make available 500 megahertz of spectrum for mobile broadband by 2020, the NTIA has already proposed that the Defense Department give up 100 MHz of spectrum. Last November, NTIA released two reports identifying that 115 megahertz of spectrum for reallocation—the 3550-3650 MHz and the 1695-1710 MHz bands.

For the FCC's part, the 120 MHz of spectrum being sought from TV broadcasters through “voluntary incentive auctions” would increase the amount available for mobile broadband by about 22 percent, to 667 megahertz. The NTIA must still, however, free an additional 380 MHz by 2020.

If the 1755-1850 MHz band is reallocated as recommended, the NTIA would have met 40 percent of the 500 MHz target.

For the report, visit http://www.ntia.doc.gov/files/ntia/publications/ntia_1755_1850_mhz_report_march2012.pdf.