Exhaust All Options Before Forcing Spectrum-Sharing, Republican Adviser Says

Keep up with the latest developments and legal issues in the telecommunications and emerging technology sectors, with exclusive access to a comprehensive collection of telecommunications law news,...

By Paul Barbagallo  

The White House, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration should exhaust all options before forcing commercial mobile network operators and federal agencies to share the nation's congested airwaves, a senior House Republican adviser said June 19.

Ray Baum, senior policy adviser for House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, speaking during a panel discussion at a Utilities Telecom Council event, said the first step to solving what has been termed the “looming spectrum crunch” is relocating federal licensees from coveted, or “beachfront,” bands of spectrum to other bands that would be suitable for their uses.

“Whether they like it or not, they're sitting on a lot of prime spectrum,” Baum said of federal government agencies. “We feel that's the critical focus we should have.”

The NTIA, which manages the government's use of spectrum, concluded in a report released in March that it is possible to free up 95 MHz of government-held spectrum in the 1755-1850 MHz band for either exclusive or shared use by commercial companies, but warned that some federal licensees, such as the Department of Defense, “could remain in the band indefinitely.”

The NTIA report has led to serious conversations within government and industry about the technical and logistical feasibility of sharing spectrum.

Executive Order Calls for Auction.

Under a presidential executive order issued in June 2010, the NTIA and FCC must make available for auction some 500 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband and similar applications by 2020.

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

Earlier this year, the Defense Department successfully lobbied lawmakers to remove from the Senate conferees' version of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 language requiring the FCC to auction the 1755-1780 MHz band for mobile broadband uses within three years.

Baum's boss, Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) in April announced the formation of a bipartisan working group to study how spectrum controlled by the federal government can be used more efficiently.

Subcommittee leaders are expected to release preliminary results of a first working group report later this summer.

White House Seems Open to Sharing.

During the same panel discussion, Thomas Power, deputy chief technology officer for telecommunications in the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the task of moving federal agencies off of spectrum will be challenging.

Most of the 3,300 federal assignments within the 1755-1850 MHz, for example, 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.

Power noted that, unlike with competitive bidding, the government's spectrum is allocated based on “what they need and where they need it.” However, most federal agencies use their spectrum only sporadically, which creates opportunities for mobile network operators to use it during non-peak periods.

The key, Power said, will be to try to shrink “exclusion zones”--those areas where the spectrum cannot be used by commercial companies. That way, carriers will have a reasonable expectation “where” the spectrum can be used geographically.

The White House appears more amendable than Republicans to implementing a sharing program. The President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) is planning to recommend that Obama call for as much as 1,000 MHz of government-held spectrum be shared with commercial broadband networks.

The council will detail the recommendation in a new report to be released within the next several weeks.

Request Tech & Telecom on Bloomberg Law