House Spectrum Hearing: Sharing vs. Clearing


At a House Communications Subcommittee hearing Thursday on government spectrum use -- centering specifically on how some of that spectrum can be freed up for commercial wireless broadband -- the basic divide was over how big a role sharing government spectrum with commercial interest should play versus clearing it and turning it over to the private sector.

All parties agreed that spectrum sharing should be on the table, or part of the puzzle, or a tool in the toolkit, and that at least theoretically, clearing spectrum was preferable to sharing in the abstract. But as a practical matter, given the growing demand and the need to get spectrum as swiftly as possible, Democrats tended to put more stock in sharing as a key part of the strategy, For their part, Republicans suggested it should be studied, that was more of a fall-back position, and should not be premised on cost and time estimates of clearing spectrum that were not based on independent analysis and could be overestimated.

As part of the Obama administration’s push for wireless broadband, the FCC is reclaiming broadcast spectrum, while the National Telecommunications & Information Administration is charged with freeing up government spectrum.

NTIA has estimated that it will cost $18 billion and take 10 years to clear 95 MHz of beachfront spectrum now used by DOD and other federal agencies, an assertion an NTIA official repeated at the hearing, though conceding that number was a starting point rather than something set in stone.

NTIA has recently said that sharing needs to be an important part of the equation, a point seconded by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in a recent report, though one not yet signed off on by the President.

Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues for the GAO, said that some of the info NTIA used to make that cost/time estimate was not accurate, and that the system it used for gathering it would not change for several years. GAO has recommended the NTIA improve its spectrum data collection.

Representatives of T-Mobile and Ericsson both said that clearing of licensed spectrum should be the focus of government efforts, as did Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.).

"I am not ready to accept the opinion that “the norm for spectrum use should be sharing” today. That’s simply not good enough," he said.

Dr. Preston Marshall, deputy director, Information Sciences Institute, University of Southern California, speaking on behalf of the PCAST report, argued that sharing already goes on, but that it needed to become a framework, rather than one-off deals, so that it will give certainty to venture capital.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) raised the issue of what assertions of inefficient spectrum use were based on. She asked whether there was any metric of determining who, in either the private sector or public sector was using their spectrum inefficiently. From the witness responses, there did not seem to be.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) pressed DOD witness Major General Robert Wheeler on a privacy issue implicated by government spectrum use. Among the DOD uses for the 1755-1850 spectrum NTIA has identified for clearing is domestic spectrum use related to unmanned drones. He asked what the government was doing with all the info it was collecting from 7,500 drones flying over the U.S.

Wheeler pointed out that some of those flights were actually over Iraq, but controlled from the U.S. perhaps from Dulles airport, using that spectrum being eyed for reclamation.

Markey also pointed out that back in 1993, the subcommittee--Markey was chairman at the time--was also looking to reclaim government spectrum and heard similar national security concerns from a DOD witness. The committee wound up reclaiming 200 MHz of government spectrum, created new wireless mobile licenses, dropped the price of calls per minute and everybody got cell phones.

Wheeler interrupted to say that some of that reclaimed spectrum had been used for radar on the stealth bomber he was assigned to at the time and they sometimes had to turn it off in bad weather and there were safety isseus, though they have eventually been worked out.