Obama Boosts Wireless Broadband with Spectrum Sharing Plan

Obama Boosts Wireless Broadband with Spectrum-Sharing Plan

For a second straight week, government surveillance of American’s telecommunications dominated the Headlines – and, also for a second week in a row, the Obama Administration made a major announcement about expanding access to high-speed broadband in the U.S. [See “ConnectED: Here Comes E-rate 2.0” for last week’s major announcement]

On June 14, President Barack Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum that establishes a set of measures that federal agencies, in collaboration with industry and other stakeholders, will take to more aggressively enhance spectrum efficiency and enable access to more spectrum for consumer services and applications. Under the Memorandum, an agency that requests a new spectrum assignment or that seeks to procure a spectrum-dependent system will have to document its consideration of alternative approaches and verify that it is pursuing the most spectrum-efficient method, in consideration of all relevant factors including cost and agency mission.

Other aspects of the Memorandum build on existing strategies, particularly with respect to advancing collaboration with the private sector and other stakeholders. Since 2010, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which manages Federal agency spectrum assignments, has been implementing the President’s directive to identify 500 megahertz of spectrum for wireless broadband by convening agency-industry working groups that are engaged in unprecedented discussions aimed at increasing spectrum efficiency and providing access to certain federally assigned spectrum bands for consumer wireless broadband.

The new Memorandum directs NTIA to expand that collaborative process to encompass additional bands. Toward this end, NTIA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will develop policies and best practices to promote and facilitate greater collaboration among agencies, the private sector, and academia with respect to research, development, testing, and evaluation of spectrum sharing technologies.

NTIA and NIST will establish a National Center for Advanced Communications in Boulder (CO). The two agencies recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to collaborate on the establishment of the center. The MOU states that the center will leverage the “critical mass of NIST and NTIA research and engineering capabilities concentrated in Boulder” to form a “unique national asset,” and includes the infrastructure and collaborative environment needed to address a wide range of advanced communications challenges. This joint effort will increase the impact of existing efforts already under way in both agencies. A key focus of the center will be to promote interdisciplinary research, development and testing in radio frequency technology and spectrum sharing for public safety and commercial broadband applications. Examples of the specific types of research, facilities and other activities at the new center may include:

  • multi-user test beds that allow government and industry researchers to realistically measure and evaluate the performance of new advanced communications technologies;
  • targeted interdisciplinary research, development and testing projects in fields such as digital information processing, interoperability and quantum communications; and
  • outreach to international standards development organizations to help ensure compatibility of U.S. advanced communications efforts with the global marketplace.

The NTIA now has six months to create an inventory of all federal airwaves that could be tapped for sharing and to develop a plan with the industry to test whether sharing in those bands would be feasible.

Helping accelerate the pace of technological change, the White House announced $100 million in upcoming and proposed federal investments in public-private research and development of spectrum sharing and other advanced communications technologies. By September, the National Science Foundation will award $23 million in spectrum sharing research and development (R&D) grants and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will announce the first of an expected $60 million in spectrum sharing contracts to be awarded over the next five years. In FY ’14, the NTIA and the NIST will devote another $17.5 million toward spectrum and advanced communications research as well as accelerate public-private collaboration at federal laboratories.

The President’s agenda has also been informed by Realizing the Full Potential of Government-Held Spectrum to Spur Economic Growth, a July 2012 report by the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST). That report significantly shifted the discussion within spectrum policy circles to place a much greater emphasis on spectrum sharing as a means of dealing with the finite nature of spectrum and the growing demands for spectrum among commercial and government users. The idea is that federal users would be prioritized over the shared airwaves, but whenever and wherever there are no government transmissions present, commercial users would have free reign to operate their devices and networks. For instance, satellite communications bands might be off-limits for commercial use in and near military installations, but open to operators everywhere else.

The steps outlined in the Memorandum will directly support the technological advances called for by PCAST, as well as advances outlined in a new report, Four Years of Broadband Growth, released by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Economic Council. That report notes that it is increasingly clear that the nation must augment clearing opportunities with research, development, and deployment of means to promote more spectrum sharing – part of an “all-of-the-above” approach.

Spectrum sharing can take several forms, the report notes, but all involve two or more users having the right to use the same spectrum band according to rules designed to avoid interference between users. Sharing by federal agencies maximizes spectrum efficiency and allows faster commercial access while avoiding relocation costs. Some types of sharing are already in common use, while other potentially more promising approaches are being developed and tested. They include:

  • Temporal sharing, when one user is authorized to use a band of spectrum in some fixed geographic area at certain times and another user has access to the same band at other times.
  • Geographic sharing, where the government designates particular protection zones restricting commercial access to a particular spectrum band in certain areas, e.g. in the proximity of a military base or a federal satellite receiver.
  • Geo-location/database-enabled sharing, by which wireless broadband devices use available “white spaces,” or gaps, in bands and locations that are allocated to other uses, but only as directed by specific location-aware technologies and databases.
  • Dynamic sensing, which is emerging as a commercially viable approach as it receives growing attention and investment, and allows networks and devices to react in real time, detecting and moving among a wide range of available spectrum bands in accordance with agreed-upon protocols and priorities.

NTIA and NIST will host a Technology Day later this summer to showcase some of these advances.

The Memorandum also encourages the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in its role as steward of non-federal spectrum, to continue its efforts to promote efficient, innovative, and flexible use of spectrum, including by imposing network build-out requirements or other conditions to guard against wasteful spectrum warehousing. In addition, the Memorandum strongly encourages the FCC to take steps to encourage improved performance of radio receivers, a largely-untapped avenue for increasing spectrum efficiency.

The Memorandum establishes a White House-based Spectrum Policy Team to support NTIA and to report back to the President on implementation of the Memorandum. Among other things, the Memorandum specifically directs the Team to assess the role of unlicensed devices and related spectrum policies.

With the White House announcement came a good deal of reaction around Washington.

“The President’s action today confirms and strengthens the efforts of NTIA, working with other federal agencies, to allocate 500 megahertz of spectrum by 2020 for wireless broadband services while balancing the spectrum needs of federal agencies,” said NTIA Administrator Lawrence E. Strickling. “Spectrum is an important driver of economic growth and innovation. The Presidential Memorandum will encourage greater collaboration between industry and the government necessary to facilitate greater sharing of spectrum and ensure that agencies will utilize spectrum as efficiently as possible.”

Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn applauded the President’s leadership and said the Memorandum “will enable us to meet the challenge of unleashing spectrum for commercial use while also ensuring more efficient use of spectrum.” She pledged that the FCC will work closely with NTIA, other federal partners and all stakeholders to achieve the goals set forth by the President in this Memorandum.” Fellow FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel added that the government’s “traditional three-step process for reallocating federal spectrum—clearing federal users, relocating them, and then auctioning the cleared spectrum for new use—is reaching its limits.” Commissioner Rosenworcel advocates building federal spectrum policy on “carrots, not sticks.” She endorsed using incentives as a catalyst for freeing more federal spectrum for commercial use.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) also applauded the President’s actions saying, “it represents an innovative new strategy to help meet our Nation’s growing spectrum needs. Providing greater transparency; directing federal agencies to be more efficient and to provide data on their actual spectrum use; calling for incentives for federal users to share or relinquish spectrum are all critical to identifying more spectrum.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), a former wireless executive himself, reiterated his call for an inventory of all public spectrum assets in order to gauge usage and improve efficiency. “Federal agencies should have the spectrum they need to protect the public, but no one should be warehousing spectrum," he said.

In the House, Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) welcomed the announcement, but cautioned that carriers will need even more spectrum. The Commerce Committee plans a hearing later this month on freeing up more spectrum. The Committee’s ranking member, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) also pledged to continue to explore additional incentives to encourage agencies to relinquish underutilized spectrum.

The response from the commercial sector was also positive. AT&T, Comcast, Sprint and T-Mobile all released supportive statements on the White House release, as did the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Rick Boucher, honorary chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance and former chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee, said "For spectrum-strapped providers -- and the millions of customers they serve -- today's announcement is a great step toward keeping up with demand. But it's just that, a step. What is urgently needed is a concerted effort to have large swaths of government-owned and underutilized spectrum repurposed for commercial auction. Hopefully these new initiatives set us on a path to get there." Mobile carrier lobbying association CTIA issued a statement praising the President’s effort to make more spectrum available for industry use, but had little to say about the sharing proposal itself.

Public Knowledge applauded the move. PK Senior Vice President Harold Feld said, “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. 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.”

June 18 will be the next red letter day for spectrum policy as the Washington Post hosts a discussion on Spectrum Supply and Demand, the Department of Commerce’s Spectrum Management Advisory Committee meets and FCC Chair-nominee Tom Wheeler faces the Senate Commerce Committee. Tune in and we’ll see you in the Headlines.

By Kevin Taglang.