Feds target 95MHz of wireless spectrum for mobile broadband

The NTIA says 95MHz of government wireless spectrum can be used for mobile broadband, but it proposes that government agencies share spectrum with commercial users.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has taken a big step in freeing up more wireless spectrum for wireless broadband service providers.

The agency, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, announced on Monday that it has determined that it can repurpose 95MHz of wireless spectrum used by the government for commercial use. Specifics of how and when this spectrum will be cleared, and how much it will cost, are still being developed. But the agency said its preliminary report shows that it is possible.

The addition of this 95MHz of spectrum, which lies in the 1755MHz-to-1850MHz band, would be a major step toward reaching President Obama's goal of doubling the amount of wireless spectrum that can be used for wireless broadband services by 2020.

"Today's report sets a path for putting prime spectrum into commercial wireless broadband use, in support of the Obama administration's goal to encourage investment and innovation while enhancing America's economic competitiveness," Lawrence E. Strickling, NTIA administrator and assistant secretary for communications and information, said in a statement.

The spectrum band evaluated by the NTIA is of great interest to the wireless industry. Wireless operators such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless say growing demand for wireless-data services is creating a shortage of capacity. And unless the government can find new wireless spectrum to auction off to wireless operators, there won't be enough room on the current networks to serve consumers in the future.

But clearing the 95MHz chunk of spectrum that the NTIA has been evaluating won't be an easy task. And it could take a decade or longer, plus millions of dollars, to move current government users from this spectrum.

NTIA says there are currently more than 20 agencies, with more than 3,100 individual frequency assignments, in this band of spectrum. The Department of Defense is using the most spectrum in this block to handle several mission-critical functions, such as military-tactical communications, remote-control robotics, air combat training, and precision-guided munitions. Other agencies also use this spectrum, including law enforcement, which uses it for surveillance.

In the past, the government has made room for commercial users on its spectrum by clearing current users, who typically relocated to other frequencies. The NTIA's report indicates that this practice requires a lot of time and a money. What's more, the agency said the cost of moving federal users from the 1755MHz-to-1850MHz band could cost more than can be earned by auctioning off this spectrum. NTIA also notes that government agencies, like commercial companies, also need additional spectrum for future applications.

"Due to the scarcity of spectrum, the complexity of federal operations, and the time and cost of relocating federal users, the old approach alone is no longer feasible," the agency said in its press release.

Instead, the NTIA is proposing that in some instances, spectrum be shared between federal agencies and commercial users.

"Spectrum is a finite resource in growing demand, and we need to focus on new ways to maximize its use," Strickling said in a statement. "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."

AT&T issued a statement supporting the NTIA's efforts for freeing up more spectrum. And it promised to cooperate with government agencies to get make more spectrum available.

"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," Joan Marsh, an AT&T vice president of regulatory affairs, said in a statement.

Still, the wireless industry has been concerned that the NTIA's approach of looking at such a wide patch of spectrum might take too long and cost too much. That's why the CTIA, the agency that lobbies on behalf of the wireless industry, has been pushing for the NTIA to evaluate a subset of this spectrum. Specifically, the CTIA wants the NTIA to initially focus on spectrum between 1755MHz and 1780MHz. While this is considerably less spectrum than the 95MHz chunk the NTIA is evaluating, the CTIA believes that it will result in more spectrum coming to market faster.

In its statement, CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent said he's pleased that the NTIA is moving forward but that he wants the agency to work quickly to free up the smaller sliver of spectrum, which would work nicely with spectrum already identified in the recent bill authorizing spectrum auctions:

As CTIA has consistently argued, the immediate focus should be on the 1755MHz-1780MHz band, recognizing that limited government operations may remain in the band beyond the near term. We will be significantly concerned, if NTIA's efforts to clear the 1755MHz-1780MHz portion of the band remain in limbo until relocation of all of the operations in the entire 1755MHz-1850MHz band can be completed.

Moving forward with 1755MHz-1780MHz, which has a natural AWS-3 pairing identified in the recent spectrum legislation, should be of paramount importance for NTIA and the administration. We look forward to working with NTIA and incumbent government agencies to meet the president's stated spectrum goals.

But NTIA officials argue that it is important to come up with a comprehensive plan for the entire band of spectrum, since the commercial wireless industry will likely be back in a few years, asking for more spectrum. Karl Nebbia, associate administrator for the office for spectrum management at NTIA, explained in a recent interview how government agencies moved off spectrum between 1710MHz and 1755MHz in 2007 to make it available for commercial auction. He said agencies that were forced to move were promised that they wouldn't have to move again.

"These agencies have long-term missions and 20-year budget cycles," he said. "We don't want to move them every couple of years. So it's preferable to move them only once, rather than several times."

The NTIA's report is the result of a memorandum issued by President Obama in June 2010, asking the agency to collaborate with the FCC to identify 500MHz of additional spectrum for commercial use in the next decade.

The NTIA previously identified 115MHz of spectrum that could be made available within five years. Repurposing the 95MHz of spectrum in the 1755MHz-to-1850MHz range, combined with NTIA's prior recommendation to reallocate 115MHz of spectrum, would bring federal agencies' contribution to 40 percent of the president's goal, the agency said.