Can’t We All Just Share?

As Headlines readers well know, there’s a general consensus among federal policymakers that the wireless industry faces a looming shortage of available spectrum used to transmit voice and data. Demand for such services are booming and this week’s release of the iPhone 5 may only increase the demand for portable, wireless devices. The question before policymakers now is how to make more spectrum available to meet that demand.

On September 13, the House Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing to examine the use of spectrum by federal agencies. Many government departments and agencies have been allocated spectrum over the years, but may not be making the best use of that capacity. In recent years, there have been many calls to clear government users off of various spectrum bands and unleash them for auction to wireless carriers. Under the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act commercial providers bear the cost of moving federal incumbents to clear spectrum. Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) and many of his Republican colleagues see this arrangement as a win-win: better using underutilized spectrum while also providing funding for upgrading equipment and services for federal agencies.

However, in March 2012, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration released research finding that clearing just one 95 MHz band will take 10 years, cost $18 billion, and cause significant disruption. NTIA proposed partial clearing scenarios and a phased approach to commercial auctions and entry. But the report went on the say “NTIA also believes that spectrum sharing is a vital component of satisfying the growing demand for access to spectrum and that both federal and non-federal users will need to adopt innovative sharing techniques to accommodate this demand.” [Read NTIA’s testimony at the Sept 13]

In May, President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) also urged that the US move to adopt spectrum sharing policies. In short, PCAST recommended that the President:

  • issue a new memorandum regarding spectrum;
  • state the policy of the US government is to share underutilized Federal spectrum; and
  • identify immediately 1,000 MHz of Federal spectrum for sharing with the private sector.

On September 12, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski announced that the FCC “will initiate formal steps by the end of the year to implement key recommendations of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report around freeing up spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band. This action will represent a major innovation in spectrum policy that will in turn enable innovations in wireless applications throughout the economy, including energy, healthcare, education, and other uses yet to be discovered.”

Industry response to the NTIA and PCAST recommendations have been lukewarm at best – preferring spectrum clearing and auctions. This week’s hearing displayed a political divide between spectrum clearing and spectrum sharing. In fact, the hearing briefing provided by the subcommittee’s majority staff states:

“While the subcommittee welcomes the PCAST report to the extent that it explores additional options, sharing spectrum in the way it envisions is less useful than clearing spectrum and too untested to be the focus of the subcommittee’s spectrum strategy. Such sharing should be reserved for cases in which Federal clearing is impossible.”

“Spectrum sharing may hold potential in the future for some spectrum bands where clearing is impossible or we have certainty that the cost of relocation exceeds the value of the spectrum. I am not ready to accept the opinion that ‘the norm for spectrum use should be sharing’ today,” said Chairman Walden. "Unfortunately, the Administration seems willing to settle only for spectrum sharing,” said Rep Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) “and in my opinion, has based that strategy on incomplete analysis. Spectrum sharing is an important piece of the puzzle, but by no means the only solution."

Democrats at the hearing praised the Obama Administration for supporting an "all of the above" approach to providing more spectrum for commercial users. "Spectrum sharing is an innovative concept that should be part of a multi-pronged strategy going forward," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA).

Government Accountability Office Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues Mark Goldstein testified at the hearing and raised some concerns about spectrum sharing. “According to the agency officials we contacted, federal agencies will typically not agree to share spectrum if it puts achieving their missions at risk… According to FCC officials, concerns about risk can drive conservative technical standards that make sharing impractical.” In addition, Goldstein explained that spectrum sharing can be costly, enforcement processes lengthy and unpredictable, and identifying spectrum suitable could be difficult due to incomplete and inaccurate data on available spectrum.

GAO suggests that there are alternatives including assessing spectrum usage fees to provide economic incentive for more efficient use and sharing, expanding availability of unlicensed spectrum, and increasing the federal focus on research and development of technologies that can enable spectrum sharing and improve spectrum efficiency. Of course, as GAO admits, all these alternatives involve challenges and require further study.

This debate isn’t going away soon. In fact, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation hosts a discussion next week -- Does the PCAST Report Move Spectrum Policy in the Right Direction? You can follow the spectrum debate here and we'll see you in the Headlines.