NTIA: Gov't and mobile operators may need to share spectrum

The agency finds 95 MHz of spectrum that could be available for commercial use, but says agencies may not be able to relocate

The U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration has identified 95 MHz of wireless spectrum now used by government agencies that could be used for commercial mobile service, but mobile operators may have to share the spectrum with the current inhabitants.

Spectrum between 1755 MHz and 1850 MHz could be available to commercial uses in coming years, but the spectrum block is used by more than 20 federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, NTIA officials said Tuesday. Agencies now use the spectrum for law enforcement surveillance, military tactical communications, air combat training and precision-guided weapons, the NTIA said.

"Spectrum is a finite resource in growing demand, and we need to focus on new ways to maximize its use," said Lawrence Strickling, the NTIA's administrator.

The NTIA, responding to a June 2010 call by President Barack Obama to free up mobile spectrum for commercial uses, identified the spectrum as the last remaining large block used by federal agencies, Strickling said during a press conference.

However, moving the federal agencies from the spectrum could cost billions of dollars and take a decade, the NTIA said in a new report. In addition, federal agencies, like commercial operators, have a growing need for spectrum, leading the NTIA to recommend that the spectrum be shared.

The NTIA hopes to initiate discussions between government agencies and potential commercial users on sharing the 95 MHz block soon, Strickling said. He declined to give a timetable for wrapping up those talks.

Negotiating for sharing spectrum is a new idea, he said. "This will be getting people on both sides of the issue, both at the agencies and in industry, to think about this in a different way than they've thought about it before," he said.

However, some new technologies will make sharing spectrum easier than it has been in the past, NTIA officials said. For example, the 4G LTE mobile standard permits self-organized networks and intercell interference coordination and other new techniques, said Doug Sicker, the NTIA's CTO.

"The technology will continue to evolve," Sicker said. "We can only expect that more elaborate and better coordinated coexistence will become the norm."

In some cases, federal agencies may still relocate to other spectrum, but in other cases, the federal users of the 95 MHz don't use the spectrum all across the U.S. and don't use it 24 hours a day, Strickling said.

In November 2010, the NTIA identified 115 MHz of spectrum used by federal agencies that could be turned over for auction or shared with commercial users. Obama's 2010 goal, matching one at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, was to make an additional 500 MHz of spectrum available for commercial use within 10 years as a way to offset skyrocketing mobile broadband use by U.S. customers.

Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, praised the NTIA's new report.

"NTIA's conclusion that repurposing this important band quickly and cost-effectively requires reliance on both relocation and spectrum sharing, and represents an exciting path forward for all wireless broadband carriers," she said in a statement. "Access to this spectrum will provide consumers with faster, more ubiquitous wireless broadband, fostering innovation, competition, job creation and economic growth."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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