Congress Again Urged to Pry Loose Spectrum from Federal Agencies

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By Paul Barbagallo  


Congress should take steps to reclaim government-controlled spectrum for the next generation of smartphones and tablets, several wireless industry executives told a key Senate panel June 4.

“To address the difference between what the incentive auctions yield and what is necessary to achieve the five- and ten-year spectrum targets set by the National Broadband Plan, Congress should, as it has in the past, look to repurpose bands held by federal users for commercial use,” Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association, said during a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee's Communications, Technology, and the Internet Subcommittee, titled “State of Wireless.”

For much of the last four years, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration have worked aggressively to find swaths of frequencies that could be made available to wireless carriers to help meet the ever-increasing consumer demand for mobile broadband-capable devices, which require more radio spectrum to carry data transmissions--significantly more than what is needed to carry cellular telephone calls.

For Congress's part, in February 2012, lawmakers passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (Pub. L. No. 112-96), which authorized the FCC to conduct incentive auctions of spectrum currently held by broadcasters. But even at this early stage in the process, FCC officials anticipate a return of between 60 and 80 megahertz from broadcasters, roughly half of the amount contemplated when the FCC released the National Broadband Plan in 2010. Such a shortfall has already turned attention to federally held spectrum.

One of the spectrum bands coveted by the wireless industry, CTIA's Largent noted, is the 1755-1780 megahertz band, which is currently occupied by several federal agencies, including the Department of Defense.

The FCC is facing a February 2015 statutory deadline for auctioning the 2155-2180 MHz band--also known as the Advanced Wireless Services-3 (AWS-3) band--and the agency is using the opportunity to try to pry loose the 1755-1780 MHz band from those federal agencies. The idea is to pair the two bands for an auction to wireless carriers by 2015.

The 1755-1780 MHz and 2155-2180 MHz bands together would create a 50 MHz, nationwide block of spectrum for future mobile broadband uses, nearly as much as economists and engineers expect the FCC to reclaim through incentive auctions.

“While federal agencies use spectrum in the performance of their duties, it is acknowledged, both in the [United States] and elsewhere, that public-sector users have no incentive to use their spectrum allocation efficiently,” said George Ford, chief economist at the Phoenix Center. “Inefficient use implies that the government has more spectrum than it really needs, so federal holdings are a likely source for additional spectrum for the private sector.”

Resistance Seen from Federal Agencies

Most of the 3,300 federal assignments within the broader 1755-1850 MHz band are licensed for point-to-point fixed microwave use by the departments of Energy and Homeland Security, and the Federal Aviation Administration. The DOD also makes use of the spectrum for military satellites, precision-guided munitions training, and unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones.

The issue has been the subject of intense debate since February 2012, when the Pentagon lobbied Congress successfully to remove a provision from the tax relief act that would have required the FCC to auction the 1755-1780 MHz and 2155-2180 MHz bands together by 2015.

A month later, in March 2012, the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration issued a report identifying the 1755-1850 MHz band as prime spectrum for the wireless industry, while cautioning that some federal licensees, such as the Department of the Defense, could remain in the band “indefinitely.”

Following the release of the report, CTIA, with several of its members, obtained special authority from the FCC to study the feasibility of sharing spectrum in the band.

Ford said he expects still more resistance within the government to give up spectrum, possibly even share spectrum, which means Congress “will eventually have to get involved.”

Steven Berry, president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, which represents smaller wireless carriers than CTIA with different policy agendas, agreed.

“The 1755-1780 MHz and 2155-2180 MHz spectrum bands should be paired and sold, and it needs to be done today.”

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