Why spectrum sharing is here to stay

The push to make more federally-owned spectrum available for commercial use will involve sharing, no way around it, according to the president's telecom advisor.

Stylized radio tower

With demands from commercial wireless providers growing and federal agencies using more advanced mobile devices and applications in their IT systems, spectrum sharing has become a fundamental necessity of federal wireless telecommunications policy, said Larry Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at the Department of Commerce.

"There's no question that spectrum sharing is a major part of the solution," said Stickling, who has been at the helm of NTIA for the last eight years, helping set the path for policies aimed at making spectrum more available and useful for commercial and federal users.

In keynote presentation at a Dec. 16 Hudson Institute program on 5G wireless and the role of the federal government, Strickling said his agency, collaborating with the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies, has been working to find innovative ways for federal spectrum holders to effectively share their spectrum or migrate to other bandwidths.

The push to move federal spectrum holders to other bands to fill a voracious commercial appetite for wireless bandwidth resulted from the advent of smartphones a few years ago and is set to skyrocket as the Internet of Things continues to grow.

NTIA, Strickling said, has made significant progress on President Barack Obama's 2010 directive to make 500 MHz of spectrum available by 2020, with 300 MHz set to become available, if an upcoming FCC auction proves successful.

Moving federal holders from their spectrum is a part of that plan, along with incentivizing commercial users to give up unused spectrum. That simple reallocation answer to more bandwidth has shifted, he said. Simply clearing federal and commercial spectrum to reallocate it for commercial use "is too expensive and takes too long," he said.

In his eight years at NTIA, Strickling said sharing has become the new normal. Federal agencies, he said, have been sharing spectrum for a long time. Commercial providers haven't, he said. They're learning, through new technologies that allow finer control of transmission, as well as through careful analysis of coverage and use by NTIA, the FCC and other agencies, he said.

The AWS-3 spectrum, which was auctioned off for more than $40 billion, provides an example of successful sharing, Strickling said.

"More than 15 different federal agencies providing 10 different types of services shared this 25 MHz segment for a range of activities including air combat training systems, precision-guided munitions, law enforcement video surveillance applications and satellite operations," he said.

By closely analyzing which radar were most active and when, Strickling said, the "exclusion zones" for commercial users of the spectrum could be narrowed.

That kind of careful, detailed, collaborative work must continue, he said. Despite popular belief that federal spectrum holders are reluctant to move, they aren't, he said. Given viable alternatives backed by concrete analysis and research, they will move, he said.

Strickling isn't a fan of incentive-based plans for federal agency spectrum. Ideas being put forward in some circles that would allow federal agencies to value their spectrum holdings against commercial markets to sell it can miss a substantial part of the value, according to Strickling.

Such proposals, he said, could create more problems than they solve. The plans might create property rights issues or lead to spectrum hoarding by agencies, he said.

Approaches like the Spectrum Relocation Fund, set up in 2004 to reimburse agencies for some of the costs they incur for repurposing their spectrum offer a better path, he said.

In an interview with FCW after his speech, Strickling said he only has only a few weeks left at NTIA, as the new administration moves in. His advice for his successor -- rely on the staff at NTIA for analysis and counsel. They've been doing a very good job with navigating the complex world of federal and commercial spectrum issues.

On the technical side, he's straightforward as well. "Spectrum sharing is a reality. Don't re-fight old battles" over whether it's a good idea or not, he said.