Skip to main content

It's Sharing vs. Clearing at House Spectrum Hearing

At a House Communications Subcommittee hearing Thursday on
government spectrum use, specifically how some of that spectrum can be freed up
for commercial wireless broadband, the basic divide was over how big a role
sharing government spectrum with commercial interest should play versus clearing
it and turning it over to the private sector.

Everybody agreed that spectrum sharing should be on the
table, or part of the puzzle, or a tool in the toolkit, and that at least
theoretically, clearing spectrum was preferable to sharing in the abstract. But
as a practical matter, given the growing demand and the need to get spectrum as
swiftly as possible, Democrats tended to put more stock in sharing as a key
part of the strategy. Republicans suggested it should be studied, but was more
of a fall-back position, and should not be premised on cost and time estimates
of clearing spectrum that were not based on independent analysis and could be

As part of the Obama administration's push for wireless
broadband, the FCC is reclaiming broadcast spectrum, while the National
Telecommunications and Information Administration is charged with freeing up
government spectrum.

NTIA has estimated that it will cost $18 billion and take 10
years to clear 95 MHz of beachfront spectrum now used by DOD and other federal
agencies, an assertion an NTIA official repeated at the hearing, though
conceding that number was a starting point rather than something set in stone.

NTIA has said recently that sharing needs to be an important
part of the equation, a point seconded by the president's Council of Advisors
on Science and Technology in a recent report, though one not yet signed off on
by the president.

Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues
for the GAO, said that some of the info NTIA used to make that cost/time
estimate was not accurate, and that the system it used for gathering it would
not change for several years. GAO has recommended the NTIA improve its spectrum
data collection.

Representatives of T-Mobile and Ericsson both said that
clearing of licensed spectrum should be the focus of government efforts, as did
Committee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.).

"I am not ready to accept the opinion that ‘the norm
for spectrum use should be sharing' today. That's simply not good enough,"
he said.

Dr. Preston Marshall, deputy director, Information Sciences
Institute, University of Southern California, speaking on behalf of the PCAST
report, argued that sharing already goes on, but that it needed to become a
framework, rather than one-off deals, so that it will give certainty to venture

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) raised the issue of what
assertions of inefficient spectrum use were based on. She asked whether there
was any metric of determining who, in either the private sector or public
sector was using their spectrum inefficiently. From the witness responses,
there did not seem to be.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) pressed DOD witness Major General
Robert Wheeler on a privacy issue implicated by government spectrum use. Among
the DOD uses for the 1755-1850 spectrum NTIA has identified for clearing is
domestic spectrum use related to unmanned drones. He asked what the government
was doing with all the info it was collecting from 7,500 drones flying over the

Wheeler pointed out that some of those flights were actually
over Iraq, but controlled from the U.S. perhaps from Dulles airport, using that
spectrum being eyed for reclamation.

Markey also pointed out that back in 1993, the subcommittee --
Markey was chairman at the time -- was also looking to reclaim government
spectrum and heard similar national security concerns from a DOD witness. The
committee wound up reclaiming 200 MHz of government spectrum, created new
wireless mobile licenses, dropped the price of calls per minute and everybody
got cell phones.

Wheeler interrupted to say that some of that reclaimed
spectrum had been used for radar on the stealth bomber he was assigned to at
the time and they sometimes had to turn it off in bad weather and there were
safety issues, though they have eventually been worked out.