Report on the federal spectrum offers some hope to industry

A new report Tuesday from the federal agency charged with managing the nation's spectrum inventory had good news and bad news for the wireless industry, which has been calling on the federal government to reallocate for commercial use a chunk of airwaves now used by the Defense Department and other agencies.

The good news is that the report indicates that the 1750-1855 MHz band could be used commercially. The bad news is that there are a lot of obstacles in the way that need to be addressed first before it can be repurposed for use by wireless carriers, the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration said in the report released Tuesday.

NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling said the whole stretch, currently used by federal agencies, could be re-purposed. "In this report we are laying out a path for moving forward using some new thinking to address America's spectrum challenge," Strickling said on a conference call.

Part of this new thinking includes calling on federal agencies and commercial operators to consider sharing some of the same frequencies on the band in addition to possibly clearing out federal users in parts. Strickling noted that the agency is coming under pressure from both the wireless industry and federal users to meet growing demands for spectrum.

More than 20 federal agencies are currently using the 1750-1855 MHz band, including the Defense Department, Homeland Security Department, Justice Department and NASA. The agencies use this spectrum for a variety of "mission-critical functions" such as law enforcement surveillance, military tactical communications, air combat training, and precision-guided munitions. "NTIA also believes that spectrum sharing is a vital component of satisfying the growing demand for access to spectrum and that both federal and non-federal users will need to adopt innovative sharing techniques to accommodate this demand," according to the NTIA report.

Strickling said there will likely be parts of the country where federal agencies have no use for some of the spectrum in the band, so wireless operators in those areas could use some of the spectrum exclusively. "These are all issues still to be worked out" between industry and the federal agencies, he said.

The wireless industry argues that it is running out of spectrum to meet Americans' growing demand for smart phones, iPads and other wireless technologies. The Obama administration has pledged to free up 500 megahertz of spectrum over the next decade for wireless broadband technologies. Congress took a key step in meeting that goal by enacting legislation last month that would pay broadcasters to voluntarily give up some of their airwaves.

While praising that legislation as a good start, wireless industry officials say it won't be enough and have called on policy makers to identify other sources of spectrum for future use. The wireless industry group CTIA tried and failed to get language included in the spectrum legislation that would have helped free up spectrum in the 1750-1855 band for commercial use. CTIA said Tuesday that it hopes the talks with federal agencies will at least result in freeing up the first 25 megahertz of spectrum in this band for wireless use so it can be paired with a chunk of spectrum the FCC already has available for auction.

"It's a good start and we look forward to working with" the federal agencies, CTIA Vice President for Regulatory Affairs Chris Guttman-McCabe told National Journal. "We hope that the balance favors clearing over sharing."

Strickling did not say when the industry-federal agency talks would begin but Guttman-McCabe said his group will press for swift action.