President Barack Obama has been urged by an advisory board to let mobile phone providers use airwaves now reserved by U.S. agencies to guide munitions and spy on criminals.
The call for wireless companies led by Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. (T:US) to share federal spectrum is intended to help meet soaring demand for connections to Facebook (FB:US) links, videos on Google Inc. (GOOG:US)’s YouTube and other data applications for smartphones such as Apple Inc. (AAPL:US)’s iPhone.
Networks may become overwhelmed if more spectrum can’t be freed up, leading to slower downloads and dropped calls, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has warned. Defense Department officials and wireless executives are wary of the proposal, which would upset decades of established spectrum use.
“Government spectrum managers are very protective of their turf,” Jeffrey Silva, a Washington-based analyst for Medley Global Advisors LLC, said in an interview. “It’s going to be very difficult, and it’s going to require sustained political will regardless of who’s occupying the White House.”
Genachowski in a May 8 speech said the FCC is exploring sharing as it becomes harder to find free blocks of spectrum. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which manages federal spectrum use, said in March that sharing could help meet surging demand.
In the latest move in that direction, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on May 25 voted to have Obama endorse a call for spectrum sharing. Rick Weiss, a White House spokesman, declined to comment because the report hasn’t been released.
The emerging policy confronts mobile carriers that prefer exclusive access to airwaves and Pentagon officials concerned about preventing interference between defense systems and smartphone networks.
“There’s potential to cause interference pretty much anywhere in the country,” Stuart Timerman, director of the Defense Spectrum Organization, part of the Defense Information Systems Agency, said in an interview.
Users can share frequencies by transmitting at different times or in different parts of the country. Devices also can detect other users and switch operations to different airwaves to avoid conflicts.
Sharing could help avert costs of moving air combat training systems from their current airwaves assignment, Timerman said. Moving training systems would cost $4.5 billion and take at least five years, the Defense Department told the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Costs include revamping ground stations at bases around the U.S. and modifying aircraft electronics.
“We have to be able to figure out a method to share, or we’re looking at the $4.5 billion to vacate. Then again, it comes down to, where do we move to?” Timerman said. “This is one area that’s obviously going to receive a lot of attention.”
Air-combat systems are among 3,100 frequency assignments, including munitions control and video surveillance, conducted by more than 20 agencies in one airwaves band examined by the information administration. The agency is leading negotiations on how to share frequencies.
Removing all federal users from the airwaves band would cost $18 billion and take 10 years, the agency said in a March report.
Obama in 2010 pledged to almost double the airwaves available for wireless devices such as smartphones and tablets by making another 500 megahertz available over 10 years. Since then, attempts to clear airwaves have a mixed record.
LightSquared Inc.’s proposal to build a high-speed mobile data service foundered after U.S. officials concluded it would interfere with navigation gear. Auctions of unused television airwaves anticipated to produce 120 megahertz are being planned, with predictions they’ll yield less than that.
“It’s now time to accelerate the movement toward the use of sharing,” Mark Gorenberg, managing director of San Francisco-based software investors Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, told the presidential advisory council on May 25. The body made up of independent experts advises Obama and has John Holdren, the president’s science adviser, as a co-leader.
The council voted to recommend that Obama declare a goal of having U.S. agencies share 1,000 megahertz of spectrum with commercial users. U.S. mobile providers are assigned 409.5 megahertz for commercial use, according to CTIA-the Wireless Association, a trade group.
Sharing may expand spectrum’s capacity by 1,000 times or more, according to a presentation to the council.
Gorenberg didn’t return a telephone call.
There are ways to satisfy commercial and federal users alike, said Gregory Rosston, deputy director of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research in Stanford, California.
“For example, they may have a military exercise once a month in an area. The other 29 days a month someone else could use it,” Rosston, who advises the Commerce Department on spectrum policy, said in an interview.
Carriers prefer to have portions of airwaves they control, according to a blog posting by CTIA-the Wireless Association. The Washington-based trade group’s members include Verizon, second-largest U.S. wireless carrier AT&T, third-largest Sprint Nextel Corp. (S:US) and No. 4 T-Mobile USA Inc., the Bellevue, Washington-based U.S. unit of Bonn-based Deutsche Telekom AG. (DTE)
“The end goal of the ‘search for 500 MHz’ that the administration and the FCC have rightly targeted should be fully cleared spectrum,” said the May 4 posting by Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president for regulatory affairs.
“Some sharing, on a limited basis, may be necessary,” Guttman-McCabe wrote. “Ideally, remaining federal systems will be limited in number and scope, and confined to a defined number of geographic locations.”
It’s difficult to control quality on a shared network, AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson said at a June 1 conference. “In the short run I don’t see that as a fix,” he said.
Obama’s administration last year rejected Dallas-based AT&T’s bid to buy T-Mobile, a transaction designed to gain access to more airwaves. Stephenson has called the spectrum shortage the leading issue for his industry.
“Full ownership of the spectrum has proven over time to be the best model,” Stephenson said.
Verizon, which calls itself the largest provider of communications services to the federal government, has designated $5 million to work with the Defense Department on sharing.
“Government and industry must work together to find ways to use spectrum more efficiently,” Verizon Chief Executive Officer Lowell McAdam said in a May 9 address to military contractors and officers in Tampa, Florida.
Verizon Wireless, based in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, is 55 percent-owned by Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ:US) and 45 percent- owned by Vodafone Group Plc (VOD), based in Newbury, England.
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