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NTIA's Report on Opening 95 MHz of Spectrum for Commercial Use

Maureen Brennan

A.J. Burton

03 May 2012
NTIA released a report in late March outlining the opening of the 1755-1850 MHz band for commercial use.  In the report, the agency states that although the undertaking is estimated to cost $18 billion and take up to 10 years, it is “possible to repurpose all 95 megahertz of the band.”  As NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling explained, “[t]here’s nothing in our report that would prevent phasing in the reallocation of this band.”
NTIA's Report on Opening 95 MHz of Spectrum for Commercial Use

There are currently many federal users in the band.  According to the Administration’s press release, “over 20 federal agencies currently hold more than 3,100 individual frequency assignments in this band to perform a host of mission-critical functions, including law enforcement surveillance, military tactical communications, air combat training, and precision-guided munitions.”

As the Administration explains in the report, in the past, the “government has freed up spectrum for exclusive commercial use by clearing a spectrum band of federal users, who typically relocated to other bands.”  NTIA indicates that such a strategy is “no longer feasible” because of skyrocketing spectrum demand.  Moreover, NTIA suggests that federal users are skeptical of having to move to another band.  For example, many of the users in the 1755-1850 MHz band were previously relocated from the 1710-1755 MHz band.  As Strickling explained, these users “were given some levels of assurances 10 years ago that people wouldn’t come calling for that additional spectrum.”  He continued, “they’ve seen that movie now. They understand how it turns out.”

In a recent interview, Strickling argued that although nothing technically prevents reallocation of the band, reallocation would cost “too much” and take “too long.”  Instead, he emphasized that the government needs to operate under a “new paradigm” that would allow some federal users to remain in the band while sharing it with commercial users.  The Administration believes that it can “make the spectrum available faster and more cheaply if [it] follow[s] that approach.”  To facilitate federal-commercial spectrum sharing, the report proposes that NTIA and the Federal Communications Commission “establish appropriate fora to encourage communications between federal agencies and industry” to help “develop[] clear relocation, transition, and sharing plans.”

One prime example for spectrum sharing that Strickling gives is the Air Combat Training System.  To relocate that system, the government would have to switch out parts that are “literally embedded in the skin of aircraft.”  The Department of Defense estimates that it would cost $5 billion to change the system to a different spectrum band.  But, as Strickling noted, the system for the most part does not use spectrum in major metropolitan areas, making it an excellent prospect for joint federal-commercial sharing.

Some industry analysts were skeptical about how quickly NTIA would be able to make the spectrum available.  Others expressed concerns about the high relocation costs outlined in the report.  In addition, some analysts now expect to see a renewed interest in secondary markets spectrum acquisitions, including deals for spectrum from current licensees Clearwire, Dish and NextWave.

Congress may be speeding up how soon this spectrum becomes available.  Representatives Doris Matsui (D., Cal.) and Cliff Stearns (R., Fla.) have proposed the Efficient Use of Government Spectrum Act (HR 4817), which would clear the lowest 25 MHz of this spectrum (1755-1780 MHz) of federal users within five years.  If a federal user cannot be relocated without jeopardizing essential military capability, the bill requires that any area reserved for the federal use be as small as possible and that the spectrum will be shared with commercial users if feasible.

Maureen Brennan

A.J. Burton

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