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Pentagon to Wireless Industry: We Need Our Spectrum

Pentagon Chief Information Officer Teri Takai

Pentagon Chief Information Officer Teri Takai // Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

The Defense Department must retain exclusive access to some spectrum in order to support military training and other critical national security needs, Pentagon Chief Information Officer Teri Takai told participants in a wireless forum sponsored by the Washington Post yesterday.

On June 14, President Obama detailed plans for governmentwide spectrum sharing with commercial carriers, an effort he views as an economic imperative.

In a memo titled “Expanding America's Leadership in Wireless Innovation,” Obama called on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which manages federal spectrum, to “identify opportunities for agencies to relinquish or share spectrum” in a wide swath of frequencies currently used by Defense and civil agencies to support the operation of key mission critical systems.

“Expanding the availability of spectrum for innovative and flexible commercial uses, including for broadband services, will further promote our nation's economic development by providing citizens and businesses with greater speed and availability of coverage, encourage further development of cutting-edge wireless technologies, applications, and services, and help reduce usage charges for households and businesses,” Obama said in the memo.

But in her comments Tuesday, Takai warned there needs to be a balance between supporting the growth of the wireless industry and Defense missions. “We have to weigh not only our responsibility to the nation, but also our operational responsibility,” she said.

While she didn’t identify specific frequency bands considered critical, she said, “I think it’s important from a national security standpoint to recognize that we have a certain amount of spectrum that we utilize which is exclusive to us from a national security and an interference perspective.’

Obama identified three bands used by Defense for operation of radars, battlefield communications and command and control systems as candidates for sharing or outright auction: 1755-1850 MHz band, 5350-5470MHz and 5850-5925 MHz bands.

Among other things, Takai said Defense needs spectrum to support training in the United States, noting that 80 percent of training occurs around domestic military bases. “The safety of our men and women overseas is really based on their . . . ability to train,” she said.

She suggested spectrum could be shared geographically based on population density or time. To do that, she said, requires knowing who owns the spectrum, and when and where they’re using it.

“There’s certainly opportunity for us to do spectrum-sharing in, for example, rural areas, where we don’t have the bases,” Takai said. “Unfortunately, those aren’t the areas where there’s the commercial demand.”

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Bernie Skoch, now a defense industry consultant, said the public is increasingly dependent on wireless devices and services and “few of us want to be or are ‘off the grid’ in RF spectrum anymore.”

“Sharing arrangements only work when they are scrupulously [designed and managed]. No one likes learning, exactly when they need spectrum, that someone else needs it at the same time and in the same area,” he said.

‘That is exactly what happens in disasters: Everyone wants it there and then. And no one likes seeing their UAV crash because someone didn't anticipate that at [a given moment] their remote vehicle will experience interference from a user 300 miles away,” he said.

“In my view, one could provide infinite spectrum to the public and it wouldn't be enough,” Skoch warned. And once Defense spectrum is repurposed to a public use, the department will have a hard time getting it back, he said.

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