NTIA Finds 95 More MHz of Spectrum

The National Telecommunications & Information Administration says it has found 95 MHz of government spectrum that can be freed up for wireless broadband, though it said Tuesday there are "challenges" that must be overcome before it makes a recommendation to the FCC, including that government and commercial users will have to share the band.

Add that 95 MHz to the 115 NTIA has already identified, and the government would be contributing 40% of the administration's long-term goal for spectrum reallocation.

That came in its report on spectrum in the 1755-18f0 MHz band currently used by the Department of Defense, federal law enforcement agencies, and others (over 20 agencies in all, says NTIA) for satellite, surveillance, aeronautical operations, fixed microwave and more.

Among the challenges is whether, given the cost and complexity of moving government users, the auction proceeds will be enough to cover moving expenses. Another is that clearing an entire band does not appear to be an option.

"In the past, the federal government has freed up spectrum for exclusive commercial use by clearing a spectrum band of federal users, who typically relocated to other bands. However," said NTIA. "[G]iven the growing demand for spectrum by both industry and the federal agencies, it is increasingly difficult to find desirable spectrum that can be vacated by federal users as well as spectrum in which to relocate these federal users. 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."

Back in June 2010, the president directed NTIA and the FCC to come up with 500 MHz of spectrum within 10 years. NTIA oversees government spectrum users much as the FCC does commercial ones.

NTIA came up with a 10-year plan for freeing up spectrum; the report outlines the 1755-1850 spectrum that it has concluded can be reclaimed and re-auctioned for wireless, just as the FCC is trying to do with 80-120 MHz of broadcast spectrum, depending on how much it can convince broadcasters to give up.

"Today's report sets a path for putting prime spectrum into commercial wireless broadband use, in support of the Obama Administration's goal to encourage investment and innovation while enhancing America's economic competitiveness," said NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling Tuesday.

He said NTIA would start talking with industry about the sharing issue. "Spectrum sharing will be a vital component to satisfying the growing demand for spectrum, and federal and non-federal users will need to adopt innovative spectrum-sharing techniques to accommodate this demand," NTIA said in a statement. "NTIA proposes convening discussions between industry and the relevant federal agencies under the auspices of the Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee."

Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Communications Subcommittee, suggested that the government should have figured out by now what it would cost to move government users. "I'm glad to see the report, but I don't think we're doing enough to support skyrocketing demand for mobile broadband services," he said. "We still don't have full cost estimates for clearing federal agencies from the globally harmonized 1755-1850 MHz band, which has been under discussion for commercial use for more than a decade."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.