Feds to carriers: Let’s share the airwaves

Updated. Federal spectrum managers on Tuesday recommended that a huge chunk of spectrum used by the 20 government agencies be made available to commercial mobile operations – a move that is sure to please carriers claiming to be strapped for airwaves. But those same operators may not be so enthusiastic about the details of proposal.
Instead of clearing the 1755-1850 MHz block of all government transmitters, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is recommending that federal agencies and mobile operators share the airwaves, splitting time over the same frequencies between commercial and government use.
U.S. Assistant Commerce Secretary and NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling said that their 3,100 individual spectrum assignments in that 95 MHz block, allocated to everything from Department of Homeland Security border surveillance to U.S. Army tactical communications. While the NTIA identified several microwave communications blocks that could be easily be cleared, the cost and time to clear the whole 95 MHz swath would be enormous and might not even be possible given the scarcity of remaining spectrum that fits government needs, Strickling said.
“The writing on the wall is spectrum is a finite resource in growing demand,” Strickling said. Just as the mobile industry’s demand for more airwaves has grown, so has the federal government’s. The cost of moving some government systems, such as the Department of Defense’s air combat training network could cost billions of dollars and take more than a decade to complete. “You’re talking about transmitters literally in the skin of the aircraft,” Strickling said.
What’s more, many of the federal agencies involved were booted out of the lower 1700 MHz to make way for the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) band operators are using for mobile broadband – frequencies that many carriers haven’t even used yet. Those agencies were told they could rest comfortably in their new home for years to come, Strickling said.
The NTIA is submitting its report to the Federal Communications Commission, which is collaborating with the Commerce Department to meet President Obama’s directive to find an additional 500 MHz of commercial wireless spectrum in the next decade. Strickling said the NTIA believes that spectrum sharing is best way to balance both the need for more commercial licenses with the government’s own demand for radio communications.
Update. Operators typically aren’t a sharing bunch when it comes to spectrum, preferring to own their licenses outright. When the FCC auctioned off 700 MHz in 2008, it designated one nationwide license as a public-private block, which the winning operator would have used to build a mobile broadband network in conjunction with public safety agencies. The license attracted only a single bid and failed to meet the FCC’s reserve price, forcing the commission to go back to the drawing board.
Still, the NTIA’s proposal appears to recommend that the government and the operators share the airwaves themselves, not their networks. Considering that — and the general scarcity of new spectrum — operators may be more amenable to a sharing arrangement in the future. On AT&T’s policy blog, federal-regulatory VP Joan Marsh lauded the NTIA’s efforts:

AT&T commends NTIA and Assistant Secretary Larry Strickling for moving aggressively and creatively toward the reallocation of a significant amount of spectrum vitally needed by the wireless industry. We look forward to reviewing NTIA’s report in detail, and to working cooperatively with both NTIA and the impacted government agencies to address reallocation challenges in a manner that will ensure that the identified spectrum bands are made available expeditiously, while protecting vital government services that cannot be easily relocated.”

Photo courtesy Flickr user Ed Yourdon