Cultural Barriers to Federal Spectrum Reform

As the FCC searches for more spectrum for mobile broadband services, its National Broadband Plan points to federal spectrum as a candidate. Since the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is responsible for allocating federal spectrum, the FCC can’t do much more. Still, the FCC’s recommendations are good. One is for the FCC and NTIA to “develop a joint roadmap to identify additional candidate federal and non-federal spectrum that can be made accessible for both mobile and fixed wireless broadband use, on an exclusive, shared, licensed and/or unlicensed basis.” In support of that, the “FCC and . . . NTIA should create methods for ongoing measurement of spectrum utilization.”

Variations of these proposals have been around for decades, formally and informally. Once in a while, progress is made. In 1995, NTIA suggested the changing the 3650-3700 MHz band from federal-only to mixed-use (federal and non-federal). That happened, and in 2005 the FCC adopted rules that resulted in the creation of the IEEE 802.11y standard. (That allows high-powered Wi-Fi equipment to operate on a co-primary basis in the 3650-3700 MHz band in the US, except when near certain satellite earth stations.)

So, it can happen. That, and recent FCC talk of “unleashing” broadband made me think the above recommendations in the FCC’s Plan might get some traction. I’m less sure now after following the latest writings on the topic by spectrum expert Michael Marcus.

In an August 17 post on his blog, Marcus asks why NTIA isn’t measuring occupancy of the almost exclusively-federal 225-400 MHz band. He finds that the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC), NTIA’s advisory committee of federal users, is concerned that measurements in major cities – where spectrum is most needed – will show low occupancy because the band is primarily used by military aircraft. Marcus says enough with these delays; in the new era of cognitive radio and dynamic spectrum access technology, it’s time to see some hard spectrum data so sharing options can be examined.

If you’re intrigued by that, there’s more. An August 9 post says an NTIA spectrum advisory committee “evades some major issues and pushes the parochial agendas of some committee members without trying to relate them to the broader public interests.” A May 10 post takes you inside that committee’s meeting, and observes a general effort to protect incumbent spectrum users.

It can happen, but these reports suggest the timetable will be later rather than sooner.