Spectrum in High Demand, Dynamic Sharing is NOT an Option

Panels of experts spanning the wireless industry and federal government, at an event sponsored by CTIA and Washington Post discussed the current spectrum demands and future plans on how to meet them. “Spectrum Supply & Demand” comprised of two complimentary panels featuring the likes of FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai; Teri Takai, CIO of the Department of Defense; James Cicconi, Senior Executive VP, External & Legislative Affairs of AT&T; and many others. Find a full list of speakers and watch highlights of the discussion here.


Panel Number 1: Spectrum: A Demanding Future

The first panel, “Spectrum: A Demanding Future,” addressed the current demand for spectrum that we face and how it will evolve within the next several years. While the wireless market is notoriously unpredictable, it is clear that our need for wireless will only grow. Some, such as panelist Mary Brown of Cisco Systems, Inc., even predict that data traffic will grow 50% each year up to 2017. Without action and expansion, she pointed out, this would lead to gridlock.

Expansion, however, is not as easy as it sounds. The federal government needs a certain amount of spectrum in order to function and properly train members, as Teri Takai of the Department of Defense pointed out. With spectrum-heavy 4G/LTE technology expanding, even more spectrum is needed for standard wireless use by consumers. Some panelists began to call for sharing spectrum in order to optimize the amount of traffic wireless can handle, which is interesting depending on what type of spectrum sharing is being advocated. Temporal- and location-based sharing could certainly be options for maximizing use while minimizing interference.  However, dynamic frequency sharing is not an appropriate solution at this time.  It is merely a smoke screen to delay the process of releasing government held spectrum.

Larry Irving, President & CEO of the Irving Group, expressed discontent with the Obama Administration’s response to the spectrum crunch. While President Obama claimed in 2010 that he’d move 500 MHz of spectrum, nothing at all has been done in the past three years.  Recently Obama announced that another year would be needed to research sharing methods. However, more research will always be needed for dynamic spectrum sharing because currently the technology does not exist.  Federal agencies should speed the audits of their spectrum holdings.  That is the first step.  This is another example of the "sharing" possibility being used as a delay tactic.


Panel Number 2:  Spectrum Supply: Finding a Balance

During the second panel, “Spectrum Supply: Finding a Balance,” there was a greater emphasis on an incentivized, voluntary auction of spectrum. This panel focused on how to solve the problems raised by panelists during the first panel.  After the upcoming spectrum auctions from broadcasters we can't keep going back to the commercial holdings.  Future auctions will have to come from federally held spectrum that can be reallocated. The theme was a search for balance between the government’s use of spectrum and that available to the commercial industry.   

The use of an auction to fairly distribute available spectrum amongst wireless agencies was widely agreed upon; however, the specifics of how to organize such programs continue to be disputed. Tom Sugrue, Senior VP of Government Affairs at T-Mobile, called for caps to be put in place in order to control the amount of spectrum an agency could purchase in the spectrum auction. This echoes fears shared by other smaller wireless carriers that Verizon and AT&T, by far the largest wireless providers in the US, will end up buying up all the spectrum, leaving companies like T-Mobile with little to none.

Cicconi of AT&T refuted this, stating that the only way to go was an open auction. Otherwise, he argued, the government would essentially be reallocating spectrum rather than auctioning it. Digital Liberty agrees that this would be too much government regulation, as who gets what and how much in these auctions should be determined only by the marketplace.  Furthermore, as expressed by Congress in law, the government's end goal of this auction is to provide a viable interoperable public safety network.  In order to do this the auctions must raise enough money, a need recognized by Commissioner Pai.  Those in favor of auction caps can't possibly believe that by restraining two of the most viable participants they could meet this goal or serve the public interest.

Karl Nebbia, Associate Administrator of the Office of Spectrum Management at the NTIA, emphasized that “we need an environment where everyone gets to win.” Even with the development of spectrum sharing, no one should have to sacrifice efficiency, functionality, or innovation. Continuing off this, David Don, Senior Director of Public Policy at Comcast, called for the allocation of additional spectrum in the 5 GHz band to make Wi-Fi faster even when spectrum is shared.

When asked about how allocation of spectrum will be different 5 years from now, Commissioner Pai responded that it should be changed by incorporating respect for both licensed and unlicensed applications, as unlicensed applications are needed in order to “push more traffic across the highway.” He also expects more rational spectrum policy and no impeding regulatory restrictions, which would make it easier to deploy small cells and facilitate greater accessibility to spectrum.

Near the end of the discussion, Nebbia said that the federal government uses only 18% of "beachfront spectrum," rather than the rumored 65% circulating the media.  However, that’s the 18% categorized as federally exclusive.  These are the real numbers:  The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) relies on frequency allocation numbers from a 2009 NTIA spectrum report.  Accordingly beachfront spectrum is allocated as follows:  Non-Federal Exclusive 30.4%, Federal Exclusive 18.1%, and Shared 51.5%.  The PCAST Report also claims that approximately 80% of the shared spectrum has a “dominant” Federal use, which “precludes substantial commercial use of those bands.”  As such, according to the NTIA PCAST report, the government controls about 65% of the 225-3700 MHz band.

The panel concluded with varying senses of urgency for the creation of feasible solutions to the growing demand for greater amounts of spectrum, especially with the spectrum-heavy use of LTE within the government.  While sharing continues to be touted as the "win-win,” it is clear that the sophisticated technology needed to do so properly is still in development and a faster, more effective solution is needed.


Commercial Auctions & Future Federal Auctions

Digital Liberty believes that open, voluntary auctions are the solution to bring additional commercial spectrum holdings to the market. Auctions free from spectrum screens will generate the most competition and innovation. However, the bidding process and methods for compensating and relocating broadcasters need to be clarified and made public as soon as possible as in order for the scheduled auction to proceed.

Meanwhile, planning for the release and allocation of the 500 MHz of spectrum promised by the White House three years ago needs to move forward so that an auction will be possible within three years after the upcoming broadcaster auction. A Spectrum Reallocation Committee could be useful in order to determine what additional bands of spectrum used by the government can be freed up, used more efficiently, or traded in for lesser frequency bands for the benefit of consumers.  These audits are in the process right now, but more transparency in the process would be helpful.