Pentagon stymies 3G wireless air strike

Government and industry agree that more airwaves are needed for next-generation wireless services, but the military isn't budging.

5 min read
WASHINGTON--Spectrum, what is it good for? Wireless carriers say: next-generation services such as high-speed Internet access. But for the U.S. military, it's good for war.

War training, specifically. In two weeks, several government agencies are scheduled to issue a final report outlining new spectrum that can be used to support so-called 3G wireless services. 3G, or third-generation wireless services, are expected to include high-speed Internet access and video streaming.

The U.S. armed forces, however, use a part of the spectrum that's viewed by some of the leading wireless carriers as beachfront property on the radiomagnetic map.

Despite an executive order issued last fall by then-President Bill Clinton directing federal agencies to cooperate, nobody's relocating the Pentagon without its consent. Those companies that have negotiated with the military brass say agencies have been less than flexible.

Europe, Asia and even South America have begun or completed auctions for 3G spectrum, and companies such as Verizon Wireless, Sprint PCS, Cingular and AT&T Wireless are in the process of developing 3G services.

Politicians definitely don't want U.S. companies to fall behind. "Europe is ahead of the U.S. with 3G," Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee, said last week. He described this positioning as one of the driving factors for placing spectrum allocation on his short list for congressional priorities this year.

One of the military's best friends on the Hill, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., asked wireless lobbyists at a Hill forum Monday for patience.

"I'm sure we can resolve" the conflict over the military's spectrum band, he said, while acknowledging that negotiations between government spectrum agencies and the Pentagon have been slow going.

But there will be progress, Warner promised, choosing a personal pronoun that put him in league with the military he oversees as a member of Congress. "We have got to give up some (spectrum)," he said. "We've got our arms wrapped around too much."

On the executive front
For now, however, Congress is the sideshow. The executive order designated the Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration as the organizations that should survey the spectrum identified by the WRC and figure out whether wireless operators can share the spectrum with incumbents or if those already in the band need to be relocated.

The FCC has see related story: Congressmen press for 3G wirelessthe task of dealing with fixed wireless providers in the 2.5GHz band, who are just beginning to launch two-way broadband, a service that will provide an alternative in some markets to DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modems. Those in the fixed-wireless community have begun to reconcile themselves to the notion that they will be asked to move and now are focused on making sure they're rewarded for their trouble. (The phrase fixed wireless refers to stationary wireless devices, such as many radios, that draw their power from electrical outlets, in contrast with mobile wireless devices such as cell phones, which are battery powered.)

The NTIA traditionally is assigned the task of turning government-operated spectrum over to the private sector, so it is handling 1.7GHz and the Pentagon. At the last public forum NTIA held on the subject, the military said that to permit clear air space for communications with aircraft and for satellite control, some of the largest metropolitan areas would be all but inaccessible to 3G providers. These areas include New York, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Denver, Miami, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Albuquerque, N.M., and the entire San Francisco Bay Area, including Oakland, Sacramento, San Jose and Silicon Valley.

Other areas, such as Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego and Nashville, Tenn., would also encounter some significant interference with military operations, raising the legitimate question of whether 3G could be viable in the United States while sharing spectrum with the military.

The FCC and NTIA are struggling to meet a March 1 deadline for a final spectrum report, and in keeping with their policies on pending matters will say only that their reviews are on course. If that date is missed, it could throw off the remaining schedule, which has allocation of spectrum beginning no later than July 30 and auctions taking place next September.

Already, the auction for 700MHz wireless spectrum, currently occupied by broadcasters on channels 60 through 69, has been postponed by the FCC four times, most recently to Sept. 12.

Not aiding the NTIA's review is the fact that President Bush has not named a new director to replace the departed Greg Rohde, who was a political appointee.

A well-entrenched military
Bureaucrats and politicians here recognize, however, that the military has a legitimate need to conduct thorough training exercises, and that means using spectrum.

"The government's legitimate and proprietary use of (spectrum) is going to have to be worked with and negotiated with," new FCC Chairman Michael Powell said last week, a point echoed Tuesday by outgoing Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth.

"There are national security issues involved," House commerce committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., cautioned in an interview Monday. "I'm not sure how that will be sorted out."

One solution Tauzin suggested is that wireless providers could simply be more frugal in their use of spectrum by employing advanced technology. "Some of the new technologies," he said, "if the engineers are right, mean the spectrum is limitless."

But Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association President Thomas Wheeler said that, as a result of strict spectrum caps, spectrum efficiency in the United States is already far beyond that found in Europe. That is, those caps have forced U.S. wireless carriers to make the best use of the limited spectrum available to them, in contrast with European carriers, who have had more room in which to maneuver.

Wheeler told a small panel at the New America Foundation in Washington on Tuesday that the FCC first must lift the spectrum cap, then move incumbents out of the 1.7GHz and 2.5GHz bands. He proposed using the $17 billion raised in the recent PCS auction to pay relocation costs for incumbents.

"We're not going to get to a solution" with the Defense Department on abandoning its current spectrum, Wheeler said, "unless we put forward a way of solving their problem on the table...We make it a nonbudget issue."

Given that the money raised in that auction already has been spoken for in a congressional budget act, however, using it to relocate the military to new spectrum could prove difficult on Capitol Hill.