Feds To Share Airwaves With Wireless Data Providers
March 28, 2012

Feds To Share Airwaves With Wireless Data Providers

The federal government will share part of its airwaves with commercial wireless providers to help ease the data congestion caused by soaring demand for bandwidth-intensive applications on smartphones and other mobile devices, the Commerce Department said on Tuesday.

“In today´s wireless world, the demand for spectrum from consumers, businesses, and federal users continues to grow at a rapid rate,” said the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an arm of the Commerce Department that advises the Obama administration on use of the nation´s airwaves, in a statement on Tuesday.

The department said that the 1755-1850 megahertz (MHz) band -- 95 MHz of prime spectrum -- could be repurposed for wireless broadband use.  That block of spectrum is enough to support at least two new national wireless data networks, and is particularly desirable because it is near frequencies already available to wireless providers.

“Spectrum is a finite resource in growing demand, and we need to focus on new ways to maximize its use,” said NTIA administrator Lawrence Strickling.

“By working with the FCC, other federal agencies, and the industry, we can make more spectrum available to fuel innovation and preserve America´s technological leadership while protecting vital government missions.”

The spectrum block would come from the Department of Defense, NASA and other government agencies, which would be asked to switch to new frequencies or share their existing spectrum with commercial networks.

However, that plan won´t be without challenges.  The military currently uses parts of the 1755-1850 MHz band for training and missile-guidance systems, while law enforcement agencies use it for video surveillance and NASA and the Pentagon uses those frequencies to operate unmanned aircraft.

In fact, according to government estimates, there nearly two-dozen federal agencies with roughly 3,100 individual frequency assignments in the 1755-1850 MHz band.

These agencies will now have to find new frequencies, something that could cost as much as $18 billion over 10 years.

The Commerce Department said it would seek to recover those costs and accelerate the transition by brokering sharing arrangements for part of the spectrum, and directly auctioning off other parts to commercial wireless carriers.

In a 2008 auction, the FCC sold the right to use about 54 MHz of spectrum to various buyers, mainly AT&T and Verizon Wireless, for $19.6 billion.

Tuesday´s NTIA announcement stems from the Obama administration´s appeal in June 2010 to double the available spectrum for commercial wireless providers.  The wireless industry currently holds about 500 MHz of spectrum, although some of that is unused.   President Obama challenged the federal government to free up another 500 MHz to help meet consumer demand for movies, games and other bandwidth-intensive activities on mobile devices.

However, federal agencies have also grown more dependent in recent years on their frequencies, as they deploy more unmanned vehicles to support border-control, disaster-relief and other efforts.

The Commerce Department´s NTIA has spent the past several months collaborating with federal agencies to determine how they currently use their designated blocks of spectrum, and to examine appropriate areas for relocation.

The department now plans to invite specific industry representatives to discuss ways they could use the spectrum, even if some agencies are unable to relocate to other frequencies.

For instance, since some government agencies don´t use their frequencies nationwide or 24 hours per day, this might allow commercial wireless providers to offer services during the downtime, something the newer 4G LTE technology facilities, officials said.

In a March 22 letter to Mr. Strickling, the wireless industry´s main trade association, CTIA, said it was open to sharing part of the spectrum with federal agencies if it meant getting access to the remainder of the spectrum sooner.

“We urge NTIA to issue the long-awaited report on repurposing the 1755-1850 MHz band — and to swiftly reallocate the 1755-1780 MHz band for mobile broadband service,” the CTIA wrote in its letter.

The Commerce Department had previously identified 115 MHz of spectrum that could be freed up over the next five years, of which 100 MHz would be shared with Defense Department radar systems.   Another 15 MHz would be reclaimed from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites used to disseminate weather data.

If the Commerce Department is able to free up the 95 MHz-wide band identified on Tuesday, the federal government would be nearly halfway toward meeting President Obama´s goals.

Other areas targeted for sharing or auction include frequencies now used for television broadcasts, something made possible under provisions of a new law allowing the FCC to pay broadcasters to voluntarily go off the air by sharing auction proceeds with them.

The NTIA´s full report, entitled “An Assessment of the Viability of Accommodating Wireless Broadband in the 1755-1850 MHz Band,” can be viewed here.