Department proposes sharing government airwaves with cellphone carriers

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The proposal by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is a step toward meeting President Obama's goal of doubling the amount of airwaves, known as spectrum, available for commercial uses.

“Spectrum is a finite resource in growing demand, and we need to focus on new ways to maximize its use,” NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling said in a statement. “By working with the [Federal Communications Commission], other federal agencies, and the industry, we can make more spectrum available to fuel innovation and preserve America’s technological leadership while protecting vital government missions.” 

More than 20 federal agencies, including every branch of the military, currently use the block of 95 MHz of spectrum. The agencies use it for law enforcement surveillance, military communications, air combat training and precision-guided bombs.

Strickling said it is not feasible to move every government user onto different spectrum. On a conference call with reporters, he said it could take a decade or more and cost billions of dollars to re-engineer some government equipment to operate on new frequencies.

Instead, he said the government will work with private industry to build systems that can share the same spectrum bands.

"Spectrum sharing will be and must be a vital component [of meeting the demand for more spectrum]," Strickling said.

He noted that the demand for spectrum is increasing for both government and private users, pointing to new pilotless aircraft.

Steve Largent, president of wireless industry association CTIA, said in a statement he was "happy to learn" that NTIA will move to open up the 1755 to 1850 MHz bands of spectrum. But he said the "immediate focus" should be on clearing out the lowest portion of the spectrum as quickly as possible.

He said opening up 1755 to 1780 MHz for commercial use "should be of paramount importance for NTIA and the Administration."

In a statement, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski agreed that the bottom 25 MHz "presents a near-term opportunity to free up spectrum."

Genachowski echoed the NTIA's assessment that government and commercial users will need to learn to share spectrum.

“As NTIA notes, the future should include sharing between federal and commercial uses," Genachowski said. "The report acknowledges that commercial systems may share the band with federal incumbents for several years. Such sharing over a longer period of time should be pursued as an alternative to a costly, complex and disruptive relocation effort."

After more discussions with private companies and federal users, NTIA will issue a formal recommendation to the FCC. The FCC will then be in charge of the specifics of which portions of spectrum can be auctioned to private companies and which portions can be shared by federal and commercial users.

Updated at 3:00 p.m.

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