Trump White House OSTP, others agree sharing will be key in future spectrum policy

NTIA panel
Panelists at an NTIA symposium Tuesday ways to manage spectrum going forward. (NTIA symposium screen shot)

It’s a lot harder to kick incumbents out of spectrum they’re already using, and there’s going to be a whole lot more sharing going on, according to government and industry representatives who convened for an NTIA session on spectrum policy Tuesday.

Representatives from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), FAA, FCC, CTIA, Department of Defense and the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) participated in a panel in Washington, D.C., where a national spectrum policy, sharing paradigms and other topics were hashed over before anyone was allowed to don red and run out for the Capitals parade.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Jr., delivered opening remarks, including references to the importance of U.S. leadership in 5G, before David Redl, assistant secretary for Communications and Information at NTIA, gave a keynote that highlighted the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) as an example of introducing an innovative sharing model.

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Redl acknowledged that historically, the federal government was always the first target when regulators wanted to take spectrum from one use and give it to another. But that’s changed, “and make no mistake, that era is over,” he said.

In many of the most constrained bands, it’s too time-consuming and expensive to simply evict a user, or set of users, from bands they’ve used and counted on for years or even decades. “There is often too much sunken investment into equipment with lengthy life cycles, and significant redesign costs. This is particularly true with satellites and radar systems, with their long development times and even longer operational lives,” he said.

With new and dynamic access techniques and technologies, sharing continues to offer a lot of promise, he said. NTIA is working with the FCC to develop more sharing and repurposing approaches.

During the panel discussion, Tom Power, senior vice president and general counsel at CTIA, noted the various bands besides 3.5 GHz that are being eyed—CTIA emphasizes that low, mid and high bands are all required for 5G. The 1700 and 1300 MHz bands also are “on our radars, but his [FAA Carl Burleson’s] radars are on the band,” he quipped.

The 3.5 GHz band in the U.S. is being set up in a unique three-tiered sharing paradigm where federal radar users, like the Navy, are being protected, but it can be shared by implementing a sensing capability and Spectrum Access System administrators. The rules are still being finalized, but NTIA is also working with the DoD to evaluate whether a neighboring band, 3450-3550 MHz, could support the introduction of commercial wireless services without harming current federal operations.

Spectrum policy continuity

As it turns out, spectrum policy doesn’t typically change drastically from one administration to another. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly were instrumental in getting the 3.5 GHz rules reviewed after they were approved under the previous administration, and Pai has kicked off several initiatives to identify and explore more spectrum bands for wireless, but some of those efforts were already underway when he took over for the Trump administration. 

“Generally speaking, I don’t view spectrum as a partisan issue. This is something that we’ve all embraced and I think there are a lot of technical considerations and conversations around this,” commented Kelsey Guyselman, policy advisor, White House OSTP, when asked about the differences between the Obama administration and the current one.

“I think one of the things that has shifted since the last administration, and much of this is due to new developments in technology, is a shift away from specific targeted number goals and things of that nature, and a lot of that is, again, because of the way that we’re talking about spectrum—when you’re looking at things like Spectrum Frontiers and Spectrum Horizons—the amount of spectrum that’s being freed up in those proceedings alone is just so massive compared to what we were talking about eight years ago, and so I think that’s one of the biggest shifts,” she said.

There are fewer opportunities for outright clearing and reallocation for exclusive use nowadays, and “I think that’s something that we’re going to have to pivot and really focus on how to make use of what we have and to move quickly to get to those goals,” she said. While there are still bands that can be cleared, that’s going to be both expensive and take a significant amount of time. Given the pace at which wireless is moving, sharing is going to be the way to achieve the goals and use the spectrum as soon as possible, she added.

“We’re viewing our actions in many ways as building on the work that’s been done in previous years,” both the last administration and prior administrations. “It’s not about upending or undoing what was done but rather continuing to evolve” and address new and emerging technologies.