Incentives Are Needed to Pry Loose Spectrum From Government, Experts Say

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Paul Barbagallo  

Freeing up dedicated government spectrum for future mobile broadband uses will prove difficult without incentives for federal agencies, several speakers said at a June 18 panel discussion organized by The Washington Post.

One of the panelists, Blair Levin, the chief architect of the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan in 2010, noted that the process of assigning spectrum to agencies has changed little in the past 50 years and still does not account for the potential of inefficient use.

“Government doesn't have the same market incentives to use its inputs the same way a grocery store would use its inputs,” said Levin, now a fellow at the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and executive director of Gig.U, which advocates the deployment of ultra high-speed networks to leading U.S. universities and surrounding communities.

The majority of the nation's airwaves are reserved for federal government agencies, including the Defense, Justice, State, Treasury, and Energy departments, but much of it is believed to not be in use all of the time, or even much of the time.

“We wouldn't treat any other federal resource the way we treat spectrum and it's one of our most valuable resources,” said Larry Irving, the former head of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications Infrastructure Administration (NTIA), the agency that oversees the federal government's use of spectrum.

Levin, for one, said all government-held spectrum should be centrally controlled and allocated by the General Services Administration to ensure efficiency--rather than each agency controlling its own spectrum. Irving added that there should also be an inventory of spectrum--who has what and how it is used.

“There are lots of people who use spectrum, and we don't have a clear idea of how they're using it,” Irving said.

Their remarks come just days after President Obama ordered all federal agencies to find new ways to use spectrum efficiently, with the ultimate goal of making huge swaths of frequencies available for broadband on a shared basis.

Negotiations have been ongoing since 2010 between the White House and the agencies on giving back spectrum, though minimal progress has been made to date.

Irving said the latest effort by the Obama administration will only create more delays; nothing in the presidential memorandum requires agencies to relinquish spectrum.

DOD Pushes Back

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 Federal Communications Commission to auction the 1755-1780 MHz band--which is controlled by federal government agencies, including the Department of Defense--by 2015.

Most of the 3,300 federal assignments within the larger 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.

“There really isn't any piece of equipment at the Department of Defense that isn't connected to the network,” said Teri Takai, acting assistant secretary of defense for networks and information integration, during the Post event. “It's the way we fight; it's the way we train; it's the way we operate.”

Takai, who is also the DOD's chief information officer, pushed back against the notion that Defense is not using its assigned spectrum efficiently. She pointed out that the Pentagon conducts 80 percent of its training in the United States, and those exercises, particularly air combat training missions, rely on spectrum.

“We really are very heavily concentrated in terms of usage of spectrum around our bases,” Takai said.

But Levin responded that Defense does not conduct training in major cities like New York, for example, where spectrum is most needed by wireless carriers.

Such a scenario could provide opportunities for sharing spectrum, even though the wireless industry prefers that the administration work to “clear” spectrum.

The NTIA's Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee working groups have been studying whether portions of the 1755-1850 MHz band can be made available for sharing between wireless carriers and federal government agencies, or reclaimed and auctioned for exclusive use by wireless carriers. But recently, the committee has complained about not being able to get adequate information from DOD to recommend whether spectrum sharing would even be possible in that band.

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