US lawmakers question plans for spectrum sharing

U.S. agencies should find ways to clear off spectrum instead of offering to share it, some lawmakers say

The U.S. government needs to do a better job of identifying wireless spectrum used by federal agencies that could be repurposed for commercial mobile services, several lawmakers and an auditing agency said Thursday.

Several Republican lawmakers questioned the pace of the U.S. government's effort to transfer agency-held spectrum into commercial hands. The comments regarding government spectrum holdings took place at a hearing before the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee's communications subcommittee.

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During the hearing, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report saying the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which manages federal spectrum, hasn't identified governmentwide spectrum needs even though the agency was required to by former President George W. Bush in 2003.

Instead of independently evaluating the spectrum needs of federal spectrum users, the NTIA "depends on agency self-evaluation of spectrum needs," the GAO report said. The report also called the NTIA's spectrum data management system "antiquated" and lacking in internal controls to ensure the accuracy of agency-reported data.

Mobile carriers say they are facing a spectrum shortage with skyrocketing use of mobile data plans. But several Republicans on the subcommittee questioned whether spectrum sharing between federal and commercial users would work. Commercial mobile providers would have more predictable business plans with spectrum they alone control, said Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican.

"We need more rigorous analysis before giving up on clearing spectrum and working to maximize efficiency on how the government uses that spectrum," Walden said. "Working together, we must increase efficiency, upgrade government systems and make spectrum available to meet our country's wireless broadband demand."

An NTIA spokeswoman didn't immediately respond to a request for comments on the GAO report.

Some Republicans suggested the GAO report brings into question recent calls by the NTIA and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) for government agencies to share some spectrum with commercial users instead of vacating the spectrum.

PCAST based its spectrum-sharing recommendations on an NTIA estimate that it would cost US$18 billion to clear the 1755MHz to 1855MHz spectrum band, Walden said. That spectrum is now used by the U.S. Department of Defense and other agencies, but targeted by the NTIA for commercial use.

There is little spectrum sharing between the government and private entities at the moment, said Mark Goldstein, GAO's director of physical infrastructure issues. "The business model does not work, because of the uncertainty involved," he said.

The private sector may not want to invest in shared spectrum, said Representative John Skimkus, an Illinois Republican. "Having it is better than sharing it," he said. "Give it to the dang private sector and see if they can turn a profit."

Commercial mobile providers would prefer spectrum that's not shared with government agencies, acknowledged Preston Marshall, deputy director of Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California and an adviser to PCAST. But with the predicted spectrum crunch, U.S. policymakers will need to find more spectrum than agencies can easily free up, he said.

The PCAST report estimated agencies could share up to 1000MHz of spectrum with commercial users, double the amount of new commercial spectrum targeted by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in its 2010 national broadband plan.

Other subcommittee members urged the NTIA to continue looking at spectrum sharing. "Given the looming spectrum crunch, we cannot afford to take any options off the table," said Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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