DoD, industry must learn to share radio spectrum as it grows more scarce

The electromagnetic spectrum strategy the Defense Department plans to formally release Thursday will call for new ways of thinking about how to divvy up radio waves between commercial users and the federal government.

DoD is taking this approach, in part, because it doesn’t think it can afford to continue selling off large chunks of spectrum to the wireless industry.

With the explosive proliferation of mobile devices across the country, wireless companies have grown increasingly voracious for radio frequencies to carry voice and data traffic.

Additionally, industry has pressured agencies to improve the way it carves up wireless spectrum, which is basically the same since the government got into the wireless regulation business 88 years ago.

Congress and the past two presidential administrations have pressed agencies to free up chunks of spectrum that they’d previously held as their own in order to boost broadband access and spur economic growth.

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President Barack Obama wants agencies to find 500 MHz of spectrum for commercial broadband use. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) set a more ambitious goal: 1000 MHz.

Short, long term views

Maj. Gen. Robert Wheeler, the Defense Department’s deputy chief information officer for command, control, communications and computers, said DoD’s strategy will call for a change in the way the military has reallocated its spectrum assets. Rather than repurposing entire chunks of the spectrum chart, government and commercial users will need to find efficient ways to collaborate in order to use the same scarce assets.

“We’ve got to do more sharing, and it’s going to require a culture change,” he said during an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last week. “From DoD’s perspective, we’re focused on 10 different things around the world every day, and [spectrum sharing] doesn’t necessarily have the same priority. But if we do it right, it’s going to make us more capable. We have to get rid of the old-think where everybody stakes their line in the sand.”

The strategy will attempt to take both a short- and mid-term view of DoD’s current capabilities to share spectrum with industry.

It will assume that a few years from now, technology will let industry use some pieces of DoD’s current radio space during the vast majority of their day-to-day activities, but let the military take it back instantaneously during a moment of crisis. Even that small change might free up large chunks of bandwidth that are currently occupied full-time by systems that handle functions, such as defense from incoming foreign missiles.

“From a commercial perspective, you could look at that frequency and say, ‘You almost never use that,'” Wheeler said. “Yeah, thank God I don’t use it very often. But I have to have that frequency when I need it, or we’re going to lose thousands of lives. But with some of the technologies that are coming out, we might be able to use that spectrum dynamically, so that when the military needs it, it automatically becomes clear. In the past, we would just own that frequency, and we may not have to do that in the future.”

DoD is not yet confident in the maturity of that technology though, so in the shorter term, it’s taking some incremental steps toward sharing spectrum, because officials do not believe that they can continue to cede what had been government- excusive radio waves to private industry en-bloc, even when those chunks of spectrum bring billions of dollars into the U.S treasury during FCC auctions.

Earlier plans called for the military to entirely vacate the airwaves between 1755 MHz and 1850 MHz and move to higher frequencies. The problem is that the government already has billions of dollars worth of satellites that operate within that band, and their radios can’t be turned to a different frequency while they’re in orbit. Instead, they’d have to be replaced entirely.

“The bill to make that move would be about $13 billion, and when you look at the rest of the federal agencies, it would be somewhere around $17 to $18 billion,” Wheeler said. “We were not likely to get the best use of that spectrum from an auction. We would not get there.”

That’s because federal law requires that the government recoup 110 percent of the costs it would incur to replace systems like satellites and radar systems when it auctions off federally-occupied airwaves.

Acquisition, regulatory reforms needed

So instead, DoD’s near-term wishes include a proposal to share with industry a piece of radio spectrum that it was previously planning to leave behind entirely. The band it had planned to move into, currently occupied in part by television broadcasters, would also be shared.

“What if we moved only part of our systems? Broadcasters don’t want to move out of that band, and they have some open spectrum there right now,” Wheeler said. “We can leave some of our systems there, such as our satellites. We can do geographic sharing that way, because many of our satellite stations are located in places where industry doesn’t need them, because they’re in the middle of nowhere. That allows us to do a good marriage of industry needs and federal users’ needs. This has never been done before, but when you look at it, we’re not going to be able to do the true vacating of spectrum we’ve done in the past.”

DoD views that as only an interim step. Officials also hope for acquisition and regulatory reforms that will let incoming DoD systems use whatever frequency is needed on any given day in any part of the world, and a regulatory structure that will accommodate that technology.

Wheeler said DoD and other agencies, including the Federal Communications Commission and the State Department, also are trying to design their plans in a way that aligns with the way radio spectrum is assigned by regulatory agencies in other parts of the world and standards that are set by the International Telecommunications Union.

Some of the steps the U.S. already has taken might make the country more closely aligned with the wireless spectrum regimes that already are widely agreed upon by NATO countries and other allies. For example, the previously military-only frequencies DoD auctioned off to U.S. wireless companies are used for commercial broadband in most other nations, and the bands it plans to move to are not.

“We could build our own domestic plan all day long, but just keep in mind that satellites are whizzing over our heads all day long, and ships are coming into our harbors every day,” Wheeler said. “From a military perspective, I might not really care what frequency I’m using if my mission is to go in and kick down the door. But if I’m going into the Philippines and trying to help people survive after a typhoon, I need to make sure I can go in there and communicate without interfering with the host government’s communications.”

In the end though, it’s unlikely the entire world will agree on exactly which radio frequencies should be used for which purpose. So, Wheeler said DoD’s strategy also will call for agility — communications systems that can switch frequencies whenever they need to, depending on what part of the world they’re operating in.

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