Irving: Freeing government airwaves for commercial wireless requires much more - now

Larry Irving

Larry Irving

In the 1800s there were political fights over land rights. In the 1900s we saw an increasing number of political fights over water rights.  Today, the new fight in Washington is over rights to spectrum, the invisible airwaves that carry signals of wireless devices such as cellphones, smartphones and tablets.

The federal government holds the rights to more spectrum than any other user. Private companies need more spectrum to meet increasing consumer demand for wireless technology and to drive innovation. Over the past two years President Obama repeatedly has called on federal government users to identify and hand over to the private sector more spectrum for use by consumers, businesses and innovators. Despite the President's leadership and industry requests, progress in moving spectrum from government to private sector use has been very slow.

Some time ago wireless carriers identified a band of spectrum (1755 to 1780 MHz) that would have great value to American consumers and asked the Defense Department to relocate the programs and operations the military has in those bands. In a recent letter to the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Defense Department tentatively indicated that it could move some of its operations if certain conditions were met. Those conditions include payment of $3.5 billion to relocate and upgrade some programs, including combat training systems and drone training systems and sharing spectrum in a band that currently is occupied by television broadcasters. 

Strikingly, given how long it took the Defense Department to develop its proposal for spectrum relocation, the plan is woefully lacking in detail. It's not clear how the Department reached the $3.5 billion figure, although, admittedly, that number is more palatable than an earlier estimate of over $11 billion. Equally troubling is the apparent linking of any proposed move to sharing spectrum presently used by commercial broadcasters. Adding that pre-condition may serve to derail or considerably delay the proposal, since broadcasters stated that they had no idea this proposal was on the table and have expressed skepticism about sharing bands of spectrum used for broadcasting with the Defense Department.

The current system for identifying and transferring spectrum is built for failure. It is slow, mercurial and fraught with potential for abuse or delay. The federal spectrum process needs greater urgency and transparency and federal government spectrum users must provide greater accountability. It is important for consumers, taxpayers, industry and the Administration to know whether the Defense Department has a workable, viable plan to share spectrum with broadcasters or whether the proposal is just a cynical effort to stall for time. Policymakers and consumers need more information on the $3.5 billion dollar price tag and precisely what that money will pay for. Every dollar spent on relocation of federal agencies is a dollar not spent on infrastructure investments and, very likely, is a dollar that end users and consumers will have to absorb in their rates.

U.S. consumers and business persons alike deserve a more carefully crafted and predictable spectrum relocation scheme. The President called for 500 MHz of spectrum to be transferred to the private sector. This plan only addresses 25 MHz. If we have to go through an exercise like this 20 more times, wireless innovation will be the casualty.

Larry Irving is the president and CEO of consulting firm, the Irving Group. He served as Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration during the Clinton Administration. Mr. Irving also is the co-founder of the Mobile Alliance for Global Good, a non-profit engaged in the development and use of mobile technology to address societal issues such as education, health care and poverty.