White House: Let’s all hold hands and share the airwaves

Federal spectrum regulators have convinced their boss of the merits of spectrum sharing, which would let federal agencies and commercial users split time on the same airwaves. On Friday, President Obama put forward a plan to identify new frequencies for shared use and a timeline to test whether the model would be feasible in the real world.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration – which manages the government’s airwaves – and the Federal Communications Commission have backed the idea of spectrum sharing as a way of balancing the mobile industry’s hunger for new bandwidth with the government’s own communications needs.

Barack ObamaThe idea is that federal users would be prioritized over the shared airwaves, but whenever and wherever there are no government transmissions present, commercial users would have free reign to operate their devices and networks. For instance, satellite communications bands might be off-limits for commercial use in and near military installations, but open to operators everywhere else.

The NTIA has specifically identified 95 MHz in 1755-1850 MHz band for potential shared use. The President’s plan singled out not only that band but three other swathes of spectrum below 6 GHz as the first targets for shared spectrum trials (1695-1710 MHz, 5350-5470 and 5850-5925 MHz). In a memorandum, Obama ordered federal agencies to begin working directly with operators and other industry players to test the feasibility of sharing in other government bands, and it set aside $83 million in funds for spectrum sharing research grants and contracts.

The NTIA now has six months to create an inventory of all federal airwaves that could be tapped for sharing and to develop a plan with the industry to test whether sharing in those bands would be feasible.

The mobile industry has tentatively backed the government’s sharing proposals, though it’s been ambivalent to the idea in the past. Mobile carrier association CTIA issued a statement praising the President’s effort to make more spectrum available for industry use, but had little to say about the sharing proposal itself.

Comcast(s cmsca), however, lauded every aspect of the plan. As a cable operator its primary interest in spectrum is for the nationwide Wi-Fi network its building with its cable peers, and unlicensed technologies such as Wi-Fi would benefit most from such sharing models.

“Spectrum sharing is the cornerstone of unlicensed services such as Wi-Fi, and we look forward to working closely with federal agencies to realize the economic and social benefits that gigabit Wi-Fi can deliver,” Comcast VP Government Communications Sena Fitzmaurice said in a statement.