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Wireless Industry Concerned About Focus on Spectrum Sharing

July 31, 2012

Wireless industry officials are concerned about a new report from a White House advisory group that encourages companies to share spectrum. They argue it might shift the federal government's focus away from finding new chunks of spectrum that can be cleared for exclusive use by commercial wireless providers.

At an event Tuesday sponsored by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a wireless industry official and top telecom staffer for the House Energy and Commerce Committee voiced concern with the focus on spectrum sharing in a new report issued earlier this month from the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. The report argues that it is too difficult, expensive and time consuming to try to move federal users off of their spectrum and that a better way to address both government and industry's spectrum needs in the short term is to find ways to share spectrum.

"The new system for federal spectrum management that this report calls for--a new spectrum architecture and a corresponding shift in the architecture of future radio systems that use it--can multiply the effective capacity of spectrum by a factor of 1,000," according to the PCAST report on Realizing the Full Potential of Government-Held Spectrum to Spur Economic Growth. "The essential element of this new federal spectrum architecture is that the norm for spectrum use should be sharing, not exclusivity."

As the wireless industry and the report note, the nation's growing demand for wireless technologies from smart phones to iPads is putting intense pressure on the nation's inventory of spectrum. Given that there are few free chunks of spectrum available to auction to wireless carriers, both companies and government officials have been looking to see how much federal spectrum can be freed up for commercial use.

Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for the wireless industry group CTIA, noted that while the wireless industry agrees that sharing is one solution, it needs to be coupled with other approaches including identifying swaths of spectrum that can be cleared of federal or other users and re-purposed for use by the wireless industry. In addition, he argued that the report doesn't say how the federal government will reach President Obama's goal of freeing up 500 megahertz of spectrum over the next decade for wireless broadband users.

"To me the most stark element of the report was right up front, in the first page or two...when they said, sharing would be the new norm," he said. "What we have suggested is that everything has to be on the table."

This view was echoed by Energy and Commerce Committee counsel David Redl, who said the PCAST report fails to lay out a business case for spectrum sharing. "We're not sure there is economic viability to that model," Redl said. An Energy and Commerce working group is currently examining ways to free up more federal spectrum for commercial use.

Preston Marshall, deputy director of the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute and one of the experts who worked on the PCAST spectrum report, said the report was not meant to dismiss the need to find new swaths of spectrum that can be cleared for wireless use. He added, however, that sharing is a more viable short-term solution than trying to clear entire bands of spectrum of federal users.

"In the end, going and trying to clear whole bands is extremely difficult and expensive," Marshall said. "Therefore, let's make use of the fact that a lot of federal users" do not use their spectrum all the time.

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