Pandemic Reveals Need to Make Airwaves More Resilient


The spectrum's sweet spot—frequencies in the mid-range—can carry significant amounts of data while reaching many users but are reserved for the government.

The pandemic has put the spotlight on the challenges facing the nation’s wireless communications infrastructure. As patients and doctors use telemedicine; children and teachers use distance learning; and parents telework from home, our spectrum resources are being stretched to the limit.

To understand the electromagnetic spectrum, think real estate. Except for a few volcanoes pumping lava into the ocean, there’s a fixed amount of land in the world. The same is true for the airwaves or wireless communication channels, the more common names for the spectrum. 

Back in 1901, when Guglielmo Marconi was experimenting with the transmission of Morse code, he had the entire spectrum to himself. Now, the spectrum is a limited resource. We’re not “using it up,” per se, but we can’t make more of it. And while 5G mobile broadband offers many benefits by carrying more data, it can also strain that resource. Even in normal times, we rely upon the spectrum to carry vast amounts of data for so many aspects of our lives. Autonomous cars, cell phones and tablets, television and radio, GPS and our national defense all need wireless access.

Just as all land is not valued the same, spectrum also has a sweet spot—frequencies in the mid-range that can carry significant amounts of data while reaching many users. For decades, the government has reserved many of those mid-band channels for military, aviation and other national security missions.

New technologies now enable more use of mid-band spectrum for other industries, and commercial companies are demanding access. Yet that spectrum is also needed for the safety of our nation, so the government can respond in a national security crisis or an emergency like this pandemic, for example.

The solution? If we can’t create more spectrum, we must use it more efficiently.

Just as highways into a city may have heavy traffic only during the rush hours but are largely open the remaining twenty hours a day, there may be opportunities for commercial and government organizations to share the mid-range spectrum. The challenge is achieving the right balance, so that the government has seamless first rights to protect our national security while making more frequencies available for private and commercial use during downtimes.

Of course, in emergencies, this can work both ways. If the government needs more bandwidth, say for national security or disaster relief, an effective spectrum sharing plan will give it access to airwaves typically reserved for commercial use. But as we’re seeing now with work at home, ordering groceries online, and more, shifting bandwidth to commercial use can also be part of the solution during an emergency.

In addition to private companies like mobile device manufacturers and telecommunications networks, government organizations are looking into the best ways to make spectrum sharing a reality. This includes the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

As with all decisions involving multiple players around big, complex decisions, there are often competing motivations—and both private and government organizations can be reticent to share information. Fortunately, there are new technologies and collaboration models available that can increase spectrum efficiency and flexibility.

My key recommendation is to create a public-private partnership with spectrum stakeholders such as national regulators, federal agency, industry, local governments, research institutions, and consumer advocates. This partnership will facilitate governance, stakeholder synchronization, joint business analysis, and mutual trust and commitment. It would also serve as a venue to reach out to manufacturers and regulators to develop automated solutions that would enable sharing across government and industry.

Most importantly, it’s a way to share risks and opportunities, with the collective goal of improving spectrum use. This kind of collaboration will mean better, more flexible access to the spectrum—for quicker responses to changing priorities like our current crisis.

Once a partnership is established, there are different models for sharing to consider. For instance, the “co-existence” model presumes that all the cooperating organizations will comply with the rule set. Alternatively, there’s an “intra-system sharing” model that uses a common system infrastructure that’s shared by the different organizations. This gives organizations with national security- or safety-critical missions confidence that they can access the spectrum whenever it’s necessary.

These are just two ways to approach this challenge and the partnership will no doubt introduce others. But this is something we can and must do. For all that 5G broadband offers, particularly during crises like we’re currently facing, it also places dramatically increased demand upon the limited resource of the spectrum.   

Now’s the time to look ahead and recognize the needs for access to airwaves are fast outstripping the available spectrum—as it’s currently configured. We must put an effective spectrum sharing plan in place. 

Yosry A. Barsoum is vice president and director of the Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute™ at MITRE, a not-for-profit company that operates federally funded R&D centers. The opinion expressed is the author’s and does not necessarily reflect the views of MITRE.