White House pushes for sharing of government spectrum

In an executive order signed today, President Obama calls on government agencies to share underutilized wireless spectrum with commercial users.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
5 min read
Daniel Terdiman

President Barack Obama has ordered federal agencies to find ways to share their wireless spectrum with commercial providers. But wireless operators say they'd still like slivers of this spectrum all for themselves.

On Friday, Obama signed a memorandum in which he directed the nation's chief technology officer and the director of the National Economic Council to form a Spectrum Policy Team that will work with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) with guidance from the Federal Communications Commission to come up with a plan to identify and test government held spectrum that can be shared with the wireless industry.

Wireless operators have been pressing the FCC and Congress to free up additional spectrum to keep up with demand for wireless broadband services. Their hope is that the government will move out of specific bands of spectrum, which could then be auctioned off to wireless broadband providers for their exclusive use.

The White House has already been working to get more of this spectrum in use for commercial purposes. A year ago, the president directed the secretary of commerce and NTIA to collaborate with the FCC to make 500MHz of federal and nonfederal spectrum available for wireless broadband use within 10 years. And so far, the agencies have identified big blocks of spectrum that can be used for this purpose, and they're working with governments agencies to auction some of this spectrum to carriers.

Obama applauded efforts made in the past year in his most recent memo. But he also pushed the industry and government agencies to not just think of clearing spectrum but to also explore the possibility of sharing wireless spectrum between government agencies and commercial service providers, something the Defense Department supports. Here's what he said in his memo:

Although existing efforts will almost double the amount of spectrum available for wireless broadband, we must make available even more spectrum and create new avenues for wireless innovation. One means of doing so is by allowing and encouraging shared access to spectrum that is currently allocated exclusively for federal use. Where technically and economically feasible, sharing can and should be used to enhance efficiency among all users and expedite commercial access to additional spectrum bands, subject to adequate interference protection for Federal users, especially users with national security, law enforcement, and safety-of-life responsibilities.

The wireless industry seems pleased with the president's attention on this issue, but wireless operators both large and small would rather see the government clear spectrum. And in response to the memorandum today, they urged Obama to force government agencies to consolidate their spectrum usage so that large blocks of the spectrum could be auctioned instead of merely shared.

"While this is a positive step forward, we must not lose sight of the fact that cleared spectrum is still the goal," CCA President Steve Berry said in a statement. "Spectrum sharing is only one element in solving the spectrum crunch, and I hope the government recognizes this as we move forward. Commercial users are some of the most efficient users of spectrum, and our members stand ready to build out their networks should more cleared, usable spectrum become available."

Steve Largent, head of the CTIA Wireless Association, which also represents larger carriers AT&T and Verizon Wireless, applauded the president's efforts as well. But he emphasized the importance of clearing as much spectrum as possible, instead of relying on sharing arrangements. And he urged the government to move quickly in auctioning off spectrum already identified as useful for the wireless industry.

"Our collective task now is to push forward with clearing as much spectrum as possible, and work to enable the sharing of spectrum where clearing is impossible," he said. "A timely pairing of the 1755-1780MHz band with the 2155-2180MHz spectrum that Congress has set for auction will play a key role in meeting the nation's demand for mobile broadband spectrum."

The wireless industry has resisted spectrum sharing, because wireless operators say they fear interference issues. What's more, these companies have built business models and infrastructure around exclusively owned spectrum licenses. And many carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless, have benefited from competitive advantages based on their spectrum license holdings.

Spectrum sharing supporters applaud the White House
But other groups, such as the advocacy firm Public Knowledge, see spectrum sharing as a smart and viable model for ensuring efficient use of the spectrum and access to this valuable resource for all competitors.

In fact, the firm said that a report published last year from the Consumer Federation of America estimated that spectrum sharing technologies, such as Wi-Fi, contribute more than $60 billion each year to the economy through sales of devices and supporting wireless services. And Cisco Systems, the company that makes much of the gear that powers the Internet, has estimated that one-third of global wireless traffic passes through shared spectrum technologies such as Wi-Fi, and that the percentage of wireless data traffic flowing over shared spectrum will only continue to grow.

As a result, Public Knowledge has been advocating for the past three years for federal spectrum sharing. And the organization has called on wireless operators to stop demanding that federal spectrum be cleared instead of looking for ways in which to share spectrum with existing federal users. In short, Public Knowledge believes that spectrum sharing makes the best use of these public airwaves.

"Those who have constantly sought to politicize what should be an engineering issue by reflexively balking at the very idea of 'spectrum sharing' should consider that we cannot hope to clear more federal spectrum for auction unless we can accommodate more federal users in a smaller number of bands," Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "That requires new sharing technologies. Those who care about supporting our growing wireless economy should recognize that all new spectrum access, whether open to a myriad of innovators and industries or exclusively auctioned to companies like AT&T and Verizon, is equally valuable. We need more of both."

Comcast, which has been building a Wi-Fi network throughout its cable territory, has also been a big proponent of network sharing and freeing up additional spectrum for Wi-Fi.

Earlier this week, the company announced an expansion of its Wi-Fi service with its other cable partners, which allow each other's cable subscribers access to Wi-Fi hot spots around the country. But Comcast and its partners say they need more spectrum to grow their Wi-Fi networks.

Comcast, in particular, has been making a big push in Washington to get policy makers to see the value in freeing up additional unlicensed spectrum that can be used for Wi-Fi to deliver gigabit speed services. The company said it's pleased with Obama's call for more spectrum sharing.

"Spectrum sharing is the cornerstone of unlicensed services such as Wi-Fi," Sena Fitzmaurice, vice president of government communications at Comcast, said in a statement. "And we look forward to working closely with federal agencies to realize the economic and social benefits that gigabit Wi-Fi can deliver."