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Congressional task force to study government's wireless spectrum use

A House of Representatives task force was formed to see how the federal government can use its wireless spectrum more efficiently to free up excess airwaves for consumer services.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have formed a bipartisan task force to figure out how the government can more efficiently use wireless spectrum.

The Federal Spectrum Working Group was announced Wednesday by Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the Democratic ranking member on the subcommittee. And it will be led by Reps. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) and Doris Matsui (D-Calif.).

The purpose of this new group will be to study and come up with a possible action plan for making more efficient use of wireless spectrum used by the government. The U.S. federal government is the largest user of wireless spectrum. The Defense Department uses the bulk of the wireless licenses for things such as intelligence surveillance and weapons testing. But many of these activities don't use spectrum continuously or in all geographic locations, which means that the spectrum could be used by others.

"As the largest single spectrum user, the federal government could save taxpayers money and provide its own agencies better technology tools while simultaneously making more frequencies available to meet America's exploding demand for mobile broadband services," Walden said in a statement.

The wireless industry, which says that it's facing a looming spectrum crunch, has had its eye on government spectrum to help provide more capacity for its services. As more wireless subscribers sign up for smartphones and subscribe to services for other connected devices like tablets, the need for wireless data capacity has exploded. And experts agree that more wireless spectrum is needed in the next several years to fuel growing demand. Without it, U.S. consumers will likely face rising prices for data services and lower usage caps.

The Federal Communications Commission, which manages and regulates commercial wireless spectrum, has been looking at several chunks of this wireless resource to bring to market via auctions.

In February Congress passed the payroll tax egislation that among other things, authorized the FCC to conduct incentive spectrum auctions, which could potentially put about 120 MHz of broadcast TV spectrum up for sale. But missing from the legislation was any real plan to get spectrum used by the federal government into the hands of wireless carriers.

In the FCC's 2010 National Broadband Plan, the agency indicated that the government could free up additional spectrum through more efficient use of licenses. And the additional spectrum could then be used by commercial providers to increase the capacity of their networks or help introduce new competition into the market. The Obama administration asked the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency in the Commerce Department, which facilitates the management of government spectrum, to look into the matter.

In March, NTIA published a report identifying 95 MHz of wireless spectrum that could eventually be freed up from the government to be used for commercial purposes. But the agency didn't delve too deeply into how current government users could be moved off this spectrum and how much that move would cost. The report also indicated there could be good opportunities for the private sector to share spectrum with government entities.

The new working group will look deeper into this issue. And it will not only look at which pieces of spectrum could be good for sharing between government and commercial entities, but it will also evaluate where government agencies might be able to move off spectrum. And it will examine funding mechanisms that could provide incentives to pay for the cost of these moves. For example, provisions in the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act, which were included as part of the payroll tax package, could allow revenue from the auctions to help pay for the transition of spectrum.

The working group will essentially provide the necessary data and recommendations that congressional leaders can use to pressure government agencies to give up spectrum. Agencies, such as the Department of Defense use huge swaths of spectrum for intelligence gathering, weapons testing, training and other applications. Even though it may not need all this spectrum all the time, the agency has been reluctant to say how much it's using and what it can give up. With more information about the use and cost of redeploying applications from this spectrum, legislators will be able to provide incentives and offer recommendations for freeing up more spectrum more quickly.

The nation's two largest wireless providers, which each say they need more spectrum to keep up with customer demand for more services, applauded the effort.

"Consumers are continually demanding more wireless bandwidth to run a myriad of devices, services and applications," said Peter Davidson, senior vice president of government relations for Verizon in a statement. "This working group has a unique opportunity to examine how the federal government, which is the single largest holder of spectrum, is using its wireless airwaves, how it could do so more efficiently, and how it could make more spectrum available for mobile broadband."

AT&T's executive vice president of federal relations, Tim McKone echoed Verizon's sentiments.

"The growth of the mobile Internet continues to spur phenomenal economic activity and inspire remarkable consumer benefits," he said. Comprehensive and sound spectrum policies lie at the heart of the ability of the entire wireless ecosystem -- from app developers to software providers, to device makers and service providers -- to satisfy the booming demand for wireless services."