Republicans push to sell off government airwaves

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A presidential advisory committee issued a report in July that concluded that the only way to solve the looming "spectrum crunch" is to focus on sharing federal spectrum bands with the private sector. 

The President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology wrote that clearing federal users is "not a sustainable basis for spectrum policy due to the high cost, lengthy time to implement, and disruption to the Federal mission." 

Blocks of spectrum are reserved for a variety of government uses, including military operations and monitoring weather patterns. Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Wheeler testified that the military uses frequencies in the United States to operate drones over Afghanistan and Iraq.

Commercial users would have access to shared spectrum bands during specified times or in certain geographic areas. At the hearing, Dr. Preston Marshall, a technical adviser to the presidential committee, explained that the military may need to use particular frequencies near a remote air base but not in New York City, where commercial providers most need the additional capacity.

But Republicans expressed skepticism about the feasibility of spectrum sharing.

"Spectrum sharing may hold potential in the future for some spectrum bands where clearing is impossible or we have certainty that the cost of relocation exceeds the value of the spectrum," subpanel Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said. "I am not ready to accept the opinion that 'the norm for spectrum use should be sharing' today. That’s simply not good enough."

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) also argued that spectrum clearing is prefereable to sharing.

"Unfortunately, the Administration seems willing to settle only for spectrum sharing – and in my opinion, has based that strategy on incomplete analysis," she said. "Spectrum sharing is an important piece of the puzzle, but by no means the only solution."

Mark Goldstein, an official with the Government Accountability Office, testified that there are still a host of technical barriers to spectrum sharing and that the government will need to conduct more analysis before moving ahead with the plan.

Democrats at the hearing praised the Obama administration for supporting an "all of the above" approach to providing more spectrum for commercial users.

"Spectrum sharing is an innovative concept that should be part of a multi-pronged strategy going forward," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee's ranking member.