‘Unrealistic' to Expect Federal, Private Use of Spectrum to Be Equally Efficient

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By Paul Barbagallo  

Federal spectrum users cannot be expected to use their allotted airwaves as efficiently as commercial cellular networks do, Karl Nebbia, associate administrator of the Office of Spectrum Management in the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), said May 15 during a Capitol Hill briefing.

Nebbia, commenting on a report the NTIA issued in March that called for greater sharing between the federal government and wireless carriers on the nation's congested airwaves, said governmental and private users are simply too different.

“Many of the systems that the government operates are intermittent operations, and that's why we often draw criticism for the lack of efficiency in our use of the spectrum,” Nebbia said. “On the other hand, it's unrealistic to expect those operations to operate at the same efficiency levels that the cellular phone networks do. They [federal usages] are not homogenous; they are all very different systems. We have a mix of airborne and ground-based systems that you probably never see in a non-federal band.”

With the consumer demand rising for bandwidth-hungry smartphones and tablet computers, the pressure has never been greater for federal spectrum users to return spectrum to the government--or at least be more efficient.

The NTIA, in its report, had warned that some agencies, such as the Department of Defense, could remain in their spectrum bands “indefinitely.”

“The day of just relocating people is probably coming to a close,” Nebbia said. “Spectrum sharing is really a part of our future.”

The Federal Communications Commission and the NTIA are expected to soon begin testing whether both government and commercial mobile broadband providers can share spectrum, specifically in the 1755-1780 MHz band, the focus of the NTIA's March report.

The 1755-1780 MHz spectrum band is immediately adjacent to a 25 MHz tranche of frequencies already allocated for mobile broadband uses and ready for auction--what is known as AWS-3, or Advanced Wireless Services-3, spectrum at 2155-2180 MHz. Under recently enacted legislation, the AWS-3 spectrum must be auctioned within three years.

Nebbia admitted that reallocating the entire 1755-1850 MHz band will be a complex task for the NTIA. Most of the 3,300 federal assignments within the band are licensed for point-to-point fixed microwave use by the departments of Energy and Homeland Security, and the Federal Aviation Administration. The Department of Defense also makes use of the spectrum for military satellites, precision-guided munitions training, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

As part of an Obama administration directive to make available 500 megahertz of spectrum for mobile broadband by 2020, the NTIA has proposed that the Defense Department give up 100 MHz of spectrum. In November 2010, NTIA released two reports identifying 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, however, still must free an additional 380 MHz by 2020.

“We're not going to reach our goals…unless we find more spectrum,” said Neil Fried, chief counsel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “And right now, the largest user of the spectrum is the federal government. We do have to be more efficient in the way we use spectrum. The spectrum was allocated in a different era under different regimes. The incentives were different. We need to rethink how we allocate spectrum, both for federal and commercial use.”

Fried's boss, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, last month announced the formation of a work group to study how spectrum controlled by the federal government can be used more efficiently.

“We want to do a deeper dive on the report we just got from the NTIA,” Fried said, noting that, while no specific legislation is “targeted,” the issue will be a top priority of the committee.