Wireless Spectrum Crunch Has Feds Scrambling

Amid mounting calls for freeing up more wireless spectrum for mobile broadband, agency that administers government airwaves has a tough task.

By Kenneth Corbin | Posted Jun 3, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- It's no secret that the rapid uptake of smartphones has put a strain on wireless data networks, and most everyone agrees that carriers will need more spectrum to meet the demand. But when the conversation turns to where that spectrum should come from, the consensus breaks down.

In its national broadband plan, the Federal Communications Commission set the goal of shifting 500 MHz of spectrum to mobile broadband over the next 10 years, suggesting that broadcasters, satellite providers and other entities will need to relinquish portions of their airwave allotments.

But the FCC only administers the commercial side of spectrum policy, and wireless providers are hoping that the body that oversees government allotments, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), will begin to free up some of the large swaths of spectrum occupied by the various departments and agencies.

Here at a conference on the issue, NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling promised that the agency is taking a hard look at its federal spectrum dispersals.

"Given this growing and apparently insatiable demand, finding new spectrum for mobile broadband has become a key priority for policymakers," Strickling said.

At today's conference, hosted by the digital-rights group Public Knowledge, the organization released a policy paper outlining a proposal for opening access to federal spectrum through secondary markets, where portions of the airwaves would be dynamically allocated through real-time auctions.

Strickling acknowledged that the agency he heads would explore a dynamic-sharing regime similar to Public Knowledge's proposal, but he warned against an "overly simplistic view of the world of federal spectrum," noting that there are fundamental differences between the public and private usage of the airwaves, and that commercial spectrum models don't translate perfectly into the government.

He also cautioned the effort under way in Congress to enact legislation to require an inventory of public and private uses of spectrum will only go so far, and that military and law-enforcement agencies will limit their disclosures due to concerns over national security.

"Federal spectrum is used to support sensitive national security and law enforcement applications that must be protected and preserved," Strickling said. "As we work to increase transparency around federal spectrum use, keep in mind that information regarding federal operations actually belongs to the agencies themselves and they ultimately decide what is releasable consistent with the national security requirements."

The House passed a spectrum inventory bill in April. The Senate version has been approved by the Commerce Committee, but has yet to be taken up on the floor.

Public Knowledge's proposal for dynamically sharing and reallocating federal spectrum would go well beyond the provisions of inventory legislation. The model the group is recommending is similar to the conditions the Federal Communications Commission ordered when it approved the unlicensed use of the so-called TV white spaces spectrum.

In an effort to ensure that devices using that spectrum don't interfere with television signals, the commission ordered the creation of a national database to catalog the used and unused bands of spectrum in each region. Devices running on white spaces spectrum would be required to connect to that database to ensure that they tap into a vacant frequency.

While the FCC cleared the use of white spaces spectrum, the database is still pending approval and the commission has only granted experimental licenses to establish proof-of-concept networks.

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), Motorola (NYSE: MOT) and other firms have been working to advance the database effort at the FCC, but it has been slow going. And any effort to introduce a similar model to the government spectrum is likely to run into similar -- if more significant -- roadblocks, according to Rick Whitt, Google's telecom counsel.

"The technology works, but what we need now is something more difficult than technology and that's political will," Whitt said in a panel discussion following Strickling's address.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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