Commerce Dept. Outlines Spectrum Overhaul Plans

The Obama administration on Monday detailed plans for freeing up 115 MHz of government spectrum for wireless broadband networks over the next five years, a down payment on a 10-year goal of 500 MHz.

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) released a pair of reports today, one outlining candidates for reallocation to meet the long-term goal, and another “fast-track” report that targets two government spectrum bands that could be rapidly transitioned to wireless broadband.

At the direction of the White House, NTIA and the Federal Communications Commission have been working together to develop a plan for reassigning wireless spectrum to help carriers beef up their network capacity to handle the surge in mobile data usage and stave off a spectrum shortfall. NTIA oversees government spectrum allocations; the FCC manages private sector allotments.

“Spectrum is fast becoming a pillar of America’s digital infrastructure,” Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling wrote in a blog post announcing the new plans.

“But while demand for America’s spectrum resources is increasing at rapid rates — the amount of information flowing over some wireless networks is growing at over 250 percent per year — there has not been a corresponding increase in supply. This congestion has led to more dropped calls and slower data rates.”

For the near-term reallocation plan (available here in PDF format), NTIA examined four bands of government spectrum, ultimately settling on two that it deemed good candidates for consolidation and spectrum sharing technologies to make more efficient use of their allocations. Specifically, the agency recommended freeing up 15 MHz in a band occupied by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used for weather observation, and another 100 MHz that would be shared with Defense Department radar systems that are mostly aboard ships.

The report recommends authorizing funds to the agencies to support the transition of their technologies to facilitate the spectrum sharing, and imposing geographical restrictions on any spectrum reallocated for mobile broadband to guard against interference.

Locke and Strickling recommended that most of the government spectrum be sold at auction to wireless carriers for licensed use, though they said some portions should be reserved for unlicensed uses.

CTIA, the principal trade association representing the wireless carriers, praised the Commerce Department for its report, though it signaled that it would like more spectrum in lower frequencies made available.

“The 15 MHz of spectrum that NTIA has identified below 3 GHz is just a start. We will continue to work to ensure that Federal policymakers understand, and focus on, the importance of certain bands of spectrum, such as the 1755-1780 band, for delivering on the promise of robust mobile broadband,” CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent said in a statement.

The 10-year plan (available here PDF format), which the NTIA developed in collaboration with the FCC and other federal agencies, evaluates more than 2,200 MHz of government and commercial spectrum that could be reallocated to meet the goal of 500 MHz of new spectrum for broadband, including 120 MHz that the FCC is seeking to reclaim from TV broadcasters.

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

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