NTIA finds 95 MHz of spectrum for wireless, proposes sharing parts

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration found that 95 MHz of spectrum currently in federal hands, the 1755-1850 MHz band, could be repurposed for commercial wireless use. However, the agency identified several challenges to do doing so, including finding adequate substitute spectrum for other federal agencies, how spectrum might be shared and how that might affect the timelines of a transition. As part of its review, the NTIA recommended both relocating federal users and sharing spectrum between federal agencies and commercial users.

Click here for NTIA's 155-page PDF report.

The NTIA's review looked at spectrum that is currently being used by 20 federal agencies holding more than 3,100 individual frequencies and solicited their feedback in developing the report. The report is one step the NTIA, an arm of the Commerce Department, said it is taking to meet President Obama's mandate for the NTIA to work with the FCC to identify and free up 500 MHz of spectrum for wireless broadband by 2020.

Part of the spectrum identified by NTIA sits directly next the AWS band, which could make it especially attractive to carriers. AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) released a statement praising the report; AT&T has been continuously clamoring for more spectrum, especially after its failed $39 billion bid to acquire T-Mobile USA. 

One of the issues the NTIA identified in moving federal users out of the spectrum is that, given the growing demand for spectrum by both industry and the federal agencies, it is increasingly tough to find spectrum to move from and into. 

Additionally, the NTIA said its analysis of the cost of a complete relocation of the 95 MHz raises questions as to whether the proceeds from auctioning the spectrum will exceed federal relocation costs, as required by law. The NTIA also said that some of the federal systems in this band may require more than a decade to relocate, which could further complicate deployment of commercial wireless broadband.

In light of all of that, the NTIA said spectrum sharing may become a distinct possibility. "Spectrum sharing will be a vital component to satisfying the growing demand for spectrum, and federal and non-federal users will need to adopt innovative spectrum-sharing techniques to accommodate this demand," the agency said in a statement accompanying the report. The NTIA said it wants to start up discussions between the wireless industry and the relevant federal agencies to find ways for them to work together so that the spectrum can be repurposed and that federal users can maintain their capabilities.

In what may be a thorny issue moving forward, the NTIA noted that interference could be caused in any transition of users. Accordingly, "it is necessary to establish clear regulatory mechanisms for sharing to ensure federal users are not required to assume the responsibility of mitigating such interference," the NTIA said. "It will be critically important to develop a complete statement of what spectrum will be available, in what timeframes, and a composite picture of any geographic or other sharing constraints well in advance of any spectrum auctions."

The new report is a follow-up to an NTIA report released in November 2010 that identified an additional, separate 115 MHz of spectrum now currently in the hands of the federal government that could be used for wireless broadband. Of the 115 MHz the Commerce Department agency identified, 100 MHz would be shared with Department of Defense radar systems and 15 MHz is now being used by weather satellites.

"As CTIA has consistently argued, the immediate focus should be on the 1755-1780 MHz band, recognizing that limited government operations may remain in the band beyond the near-term," said CTIA President Steve Largent. "We will be significantly concerned if NTIA's efforts to clear the 1755-1780 portion of the band remain in limbo until relocation of all of the operations in the entire 1755-1850 MHz band can be completed. Moving forward with 1755-1780 MHz, which has a natural AWS 3 pairing identified in the recent spectrum legislation, should be of paramount importance for NTIA and the Administration."

The NTIA counters that when federal users of AWS spectrum in 1710-1755 MHz band were moved in 2007, they were assured they would not have to move again any time soon. Therefore, the NTIA argues, it makes sense to focus on a long-term plan for the entire 95 MHZ rather than focus on the 1755-1780 MHz portion.

"These agencies have long-term missions and 20-year budget cycles," Karl Nebbia, associate administrator for the office for spectrum management at NTIA, told CNET. "We don't want to move them every couple of years. So it's preferable to move them only once rather than several times."

Public interest group Public Knowledge praised the report. "This is a watershed moment because the government recognizes that new approaches are needed to spectrum policy. We can no longer rely on squeezing more spectrum from federal users to meet our ever-expanding needs for wireless services," said Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge. 

For more:
- see this release
- see this report (PDF)
- see this GigaOM post
- see this CNET article

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