Presidential report envisions dramatic restructuring of airwaves

The federal government should share broad swaths of wireless frequencies with the private sector to help meet the booming demand for mobile data, according to a report released Friday by a presidential advisory committee.

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended that President Obama issue an executive order for the government to convert 1,000 MHz of radio spectrum into "shared-use spectrum superhighways."

The proposal would be a dramatic restructuring of how the nation uses its airwaves. 

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Demand for data over cellular networks has doubled every year for the last four years, and wireless carriers argue that they need more spectrum to meet the exploding demand.

The council's proposal aims to take advantage of technological advances to help carriers serve their customers, while also allowing the government to continue using new wireless technologies such as drones.

Users would have access to shared spectrum bands during specified times or in certain geographic areas. So for example, wireless carriers might have access to frequencies near an air base when no training exercises are happening.

Some technologies are also able to scan for unused frequencies in the shared bands.  

"This study finds that today’s apparent shortage of spectrum is in fact an illusion brought about because of the way spectrum is managed," the council wrote. "If the Nation instead expands its options for managing Federal spectrum, we can transform the availability of a precious national resource —spectrum—from scarcity to abundance."

The group rejected claims by wireless carriers that the solution to the "spectrum crunch" is for the government to hand over more frequencies to the private sector.

"Clearing and reallocation of Federal spectrum for exclusive use is not a sustainable basis for spectrum policy due to the high cost, lengthy time to implement, and disruption to the Federal mission," the council wrote, arguing that the cost of reprogramming government equipment is prohibitively expensive.  "Sharing of Federal spectrum, however, would provide the basis for economic and social benefits for the Nation."

The council acknowledged that implementing the plan will not be easy and would take years to complete. "But just as the transcontinental highway system began with one road, we must act immediately," the group wrote.

The wireless industry expressed skepticism about the council's focus on sharing, rather than exclusive use.

Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for wireless trade group CTIA, agreed that "it is sensible to investigate creative approaches," but said exclusive-use spectrum is still the "gold-standard."

Joan March, a vice president for AT&T, criticized the report for failing to "recognize the benefits of exclusive use licenses." 

"Those licenses enabled the creation of the mobile Internet and all of the ensuing innovation, investment and job creation that followed," she said.