Fourth-graders use iPads at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington,… (Mary F. Calvert/Zuma Press/MCT )
Reporting from Washington — The Defense Department and other federal agencies should share a swath of valuable public airwaves with wireless companies to help meet rising demand from smartphones and other mobile devices, the Commerce Department said Tuesday.
Sharing the spectrum would be a new approach and would involve finding ways to prevent commercial systems from interfering with key government functions, including directing precision-guided munitions, operating unmanned drones, and tracking satellites and other space systems, according to a 155-page report from Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
"The writing is on the wall -- spectrum is a finite resource in growing demand and we need to find new ways to maximize its use," said Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant Commerce secretary for communications and information.
He said the agency would begin discussions with wireless companies about sharing the airwaves, though he wouldn't estimate how long those talks would take.
"This will be getting people on both sides … to think about this in a different way than it's ever been thought about before," he told reporters on a conference call.
CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry trade group, said it recognized that some limited government operations would have to remain in the swath of airwaves "beyond the near term," but it was anxious to get access for commercial uses.
"We look forward to seeing the maximum amount of this spectrum cleared as soon as possible," said the group's president, Steve Largent.
NTIA said it could free a key chunk of prime wireless spectrum now used by the federal government, as it has with other swaths in the past. Some of the airwaves are only in government use in parts of the country, allowing for their easy switch to commercial uses in those markets.
But the report said sharing the spectrum would make it more quickly available for commercial use and at less cost to the government.
The Obama administration launched an initiative in 2010 to double the amount of commercial wireless airwaves by 2020 as more consumers rely on iPads, smartphones and other mobile devices to surf the Internet, stream movies and communicate.
But federal agencies, particularly the Pentagon, also increasingly rely on wireless communications, making it more difficult for officials to shift their systems to other government spectrum. The 95 megahertz of prime airwaves targeted by the report is used by about 20 federal agencies, with more than 3,100 individual frequencies in operation.
The report estimated the cost of shifting all federal users from that spectrum would be about $18 billion. That risks violating a law that requires the costs of shifting users of the federal spectrum to be covered by the amount raised from private companies by auctioning off leases for access to the airwaves.
In addition, some federal agencies said they would need continued access to some of the airwaves. For example, the Defense Department said it needed indefinite access for emergency situations involving satellites, as well as for some development, testing and training of electronic warfare systems.
"Due to the scarcity of spectrum, the complexity of federal operations, and the time and cost of relocating federal users, the old approach alone is no longer feasible," the NTIA said.
Strickling would not estimate how long it would take to complete negotiations with private industry over sharing airwaves.
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