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Freeing Government Spectrum Could Take 10 Years

WASHINGTON: It could take more than 10 years to transfer government-held spectrum for commercial use, the head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration told a House panel.

At a spectrum hearing held Wednesday by the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, NTIA chief Lawrence Strickling said re-allocating a single band can be a “complex and time-consuming challenge” that can “take anywhere from a few years to more than 10 years.”

Federal agencies are working to “improve efficiency” of the broadcast bands allocated to them “by sharing spectrum with each other” based on geography and time restrictions, Strickling said. In addition, NTIA limits some agencies’ use of spectrum by designating the times and locations in which needed frequencies are used, said Strickling, who added, “Commercial spectrum is rarely used in a similar manner.”

The federal government often operates a variety of systems within a specific band that may have little in common from a technological perspective, and could include operations as diverse and technologically unrelated as high powered radars; unmanned aerial vehicles; electronic surveillance by law enforcement; and satellite communication that requires ground stations, he said. Sharing those frequencies with “any type of commercial facility” is not a viable option, he added.

In addition, because as long as a satellite is operational--satellites typically have working lives in excess of 20 years--it requires a ground station, Strickling said. Therefore, the federal government might have to maintain spectrum exclusively for satellites by establishing “geographic exclusion zones” that that are longer than 10 years, he said. 

However, auctioning government-held spectrum is not new, said Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore. The spectrum in the AWS-1 band was government spectrum as recently as 2007, but which is now used by T-Mobile and others to provide high-speed wireless broadband services. Reallocating that spectrum raised $13 billion for the federal government, he said.

In addition, among the many bands the NTIA is reviewing for reallocation, “perhaps the most anticipated is the spectrum from 1,755-1,780 MHz,” Walden said, adding that business has “targeted” that spectrum “for its potential as a commercial band.”

Strickling said, the re-allocation of parts of the spectrum from 1,755 to 1,850 is being studied, and the NTIA “will make a recommendation on that band at the end of September of this year.” If the recommendation is to reallocate a portion of that band, it could take 10 years depending on the band. 

Strickling added that the while industry has indicated a particular interest in the 25 MHz between 1,755 and 1,780, the NTIA is looking at the 94 MHz between 1,755 and 1,850. “Because the problems this country is facing is going to be bigger than what 25 megahertz will solve, we’re looking at the whole band to see what portion, if any, can be re-allocated,” he said. 
-- J.J. Smith