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Share that wireless spectrum

Editorial

A new report from the Obama administration raises hopes of freeing up some federally-used spectrum for commercial wireless services.

April 02, 2012
  • Rapidly increasing connectivity and mobile data traffic will require more efficient and intensive use of the available spectrum, and sharing frequencies is part of the equation.
Rapidly increasing connectivity and mobile data traffic will require… (Los Angeles Times )

Policymakers have long agreed that Washington needs to make more spectrum available for wireless services, but they've struggled to convince the federal agencies that control more than half of the usable frequencies. A new report from the Obama administration raised hopes last week, suggesting a way to squeeze more room for commercial networks out of some prime frequencies that are crowded with federal users.

More than 20 agencies now have exclusive rights to the spectrum in question (1755 Mhz to 1850 Mhz), using it to train fighter pilots, guide smart bombs, monitor the border and conduct surveillance, among other things. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration concluded that it would cost about $18 billion to shift all of these users onto other frequencies, which is more than the government would probably make auctioning the vacated spectrum to the public.

On the other hand, the NTIA reported that a quarter of the frequencies could be cleared in five years. Until then, those frequencies could be shared with commercial users, largely by opening them outside the limited geographic areas where the government is using them. In other parts of that spectrum, the NTIA said, the government and commercial users should find ways to share frequencies with federal users that can't be moved.

The government doesn't typically offer to share spectrum, in part because commercial users will pay more for the right to use a swath of frequencies exclusively. But technology has advanced to the point where devices can operate on multiple frequencies, finding clear paths through crowded data environments and respecting the needs of other users. So if there's a will to share, technically there is a way.

The biggest hurdles may be the lack of incentive by federal agencies, which have nothing to gain from giving up their spectrum allocations. The government would also have to come up with new licensing concepts, and wireless network operators would have to adapt to having less than exclusive rights to some of their frequencies.

Still, the NTIA's report suggests that commercial users shouldn't cling to the hope that the government will clear federal users off of much of the spectrum they control. It's costly, and there's nowhere for them to go that's not already occupied. Rapidly increasing connectivity and mobile data traffic will require more efficient and intensive use of the available spectrum, and sharing frequencies is part of the equation. Kudos to the NTIA for pushing the government in that direction.

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