Republicans on a House Energy and Commerce panel on Wednesday questioned the feasibility of sharing spectrum between federal users and commercial wireless providers and called on administration officials to focus more on trying to clear more spectrum for the industry to use exclusively to meet the nation’s growing demand for wireless broadband.
The issue has gained new attention following the release of two government reports this year that put as much emphasis on sharing spectrum as it did on finding spectrum that can be cleared and auctioned off to commercial providers.
As Americans’ appetite for smartphones, iPads, and other wireless technologies grows, wireless companies worry that they will not have enough spectrum to meet demand. Much of the spectrum that could be easily cleared and reallocated to commercial wireless providers has been auctioned. And although Congress passed legislation earlier this year aimed at enticing broadcasters to give up some of their airwaves, the process will likely take years before it produces any new sources of spectrum. Given this, industry officials have been calling on the federal government to reexamine its own spectrum holdings and see if it could transfer some of those airwaves to wireless providers.
But a report released in July from the President’s Council of Advisors of Science and Technology argued that U.S. spectrum policy should shift from a focus on providing exclusive use of spectrum to one that promotes sharing between industry and federal users. The report argues that it will take too much time and money to clear large swaths of spectrum now used by federal agencies for use by wireless companies. The PCAST report echoed one issued in March by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which focused on one chunk of spectrum in particular.
“It is a compromise that meets both sides’ needs without having to do grievous injury to both,” Preston Marshall, deputy director of the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, told the Communications and Technology Subcommittee. He was among the many experts who worked on the PCAST report.
But Republicans were critical of the increased focus on spectrum-sharing. They and some industry officials argue that there are technical limitations to spectrum sharing and questioned whether there is a business case for investing in such a system, given the uncertainty about when that spectrum would be available.
“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,” Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., said. “I am not ready to accept the opinion that ‘the norm for spectrum use should be sharing’ today. That’s simply not good enough.”
While wireless-industry officials have said that spectrum-sharing will have to be part of an all-of-the-above approach to meeting industry’s needs, they worry that policymakers are not giving as much attention to continuing to clear bands for industry’s exclusive use. Industry officials are particularly interested in a chuck of spectrum in the 1755-1780, band now used by the Defense Department, because it can be paired with spectrum that the Federal Communications Commission already has available for auction.
“The wireless industry is investing billions of dollars in new technologies to solve this problem by improving spectrum efficiency, deploying LTE networks, adding cell sites, and improving network management practices and technologies, but it will not be enough,” a coalition of wireless and tech industry groups wrote to the committee on Thursday. “The evidence is overwhelming. More cleared, paired, internationally harmonized spectrum allocations below 3 GHz are needed and needed soon. America’s economy and its global leadership in mobile broadband depend on it.”
Walden and other Republicans noted that the FCC's past efforts to promote sharing have not been successful, pointing in particular to the failure of a 2008 auction of spectrum that was slated for use by both commercial providers and public safety.
The NTIA report argued that while it is possible to clear the 1755 band of federal users, it will be difficult, expensive (costing as much as $18 billion), and take many years. But some industry officials question this estimate. And some lawmakers pressed administration officials about whether federal agencies have had enough incentive to try to use their spectrum more efficiently.
Steve Sharkey, T-Mobile’s director of engineering and technology policy, told the committee that NTIA’s estimate on the cost of clearing the 1755 band is overly “pessimistic” and noted that the actual cost of clearing other bands of federal users in the past ended up being lower than initial estimates.
Some lawmakers suggested that federal agencies might need a financial incentive to give up some of their underused spectrum.
“Because of the lack of an economic incentive on the part of many agencies, we found many simply don’t do the work to figure out how best to use the spectrum they have,” Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office, told the subcommittee.