Backing PCAST, Commissioners Propose Spectrum Sharing

Today the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed new rules governing how wireless broadband providers can share the airwaves with Government users, adopting an innovative model first proposed earlier this year by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) in its landmark report, Realizing the Full Potential of Government-Held Spectrum to Spur Economic Growth.  The FCC action comes amidst an array of Administration initiatives aimed at freeing up more spectrum for wireless broadband in order to drive productivity, jobs, and innovation, while also protecting the essential Government systems – including public safety, law enforcement, border protection, and military defense -- that also rely on spectrum and are relied upon by the American taxpayer.  It is this type of public-private commitment and collaboration that is crucial to maintaining America’s leadership in the development and use of advanced wireless technologies.

Reflecting PCAST’s recommendation to apply creative approaches to spectrum sharing, the FCC’s proposal would allow sharing of certain parts of the spectrum under a three-tiered prioritization scheme, allowing two new categories of commercial use into a radio band that until now has been reserved for exclusive use by the Government.  The proposed rules would ensure absolute protection of the vital Government systems operating at those frequencies; a more limited degree of access for commercial users who, within limits, could use those frequencies outside of Government protected zones; and a third class of “general authorized access” that would be engineered so as to avoid interference with the first two categories.  All users would be required to register in a database, so market participants could make informed decisions about when and where to deploy their systems.  While these proposed rules would, if adopted, govern only one slice of the radiofrequency spectrum, they offer a window into how sharing of Government spectrum can become an important component of the more efficient approach to spectrum management called for by President Obama. 

Followers of the PCAST will also be interested in this week’s report from the FCC’s Technical Advisory Council on how improved receiver performance can help drive greater spectrum efficiency, another critical issue spotlighted by the PCAST in its report.

The FCC’s action today follows a multi-pronged Administration strategy to address the growing demand for spectrum.  For example:

  • In his June 2010 Presidential Memorandum, “Unleashing the Wireless Broadband Revolution,” President Obama directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), working with other Federal agencies, to identify 500 megahertz (MHz) of Government-held spectrum that could be relinquished to, or shared with, commercial wireless providers within 10 years – almost doubling the amount of spectrum available.  Indeed, the spectrum band at the center of today’s FCC proposal was identified by NTIA as a prime candidate for sharing in a report two years ago, just a few months after the issuance of the Presidential Memorandum.  Since then, NTIA has conducted reviews of hundreds of additional MHz of spectrum that could be made available for commercial use.  As a critical aspect of that effort, NTIA has been coordinating extensive discussions between Federal agencies and wireless providers that have resulted in unprecedented sharing of technical and other information that can lead to more efficient spectrum use by both sides.   
  • In his January 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama announced a commitment to ensuring that at least 98% of all Americans had access to advanced 4G wireless services within five years.  Public statements from major wireless carriers suggest that this goal will be met, thanks in part to legislation signed by the president in December 2010 that, among other things, allowed those carriers to take “bonus depreciation” for network investments made between September 2010 and the end of 2011, expediting their deployment plans.
  • In February 2012 the President signed into law a range of spectrum-related provisions as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012.  Those provisions included new spectrum auction authority for the FCC that will make more spectrum available for wireless broadband use while also raising revenues to reduce the deficit.  The law also enabled the formation of a nationwide interoperable wireless network for our first responders, so that police, fire, and rescue agencies can communicate with each other seamlessly across state and local boundaries, with spectrum allocated to public safety spectrum being made available to commercial providers when not in use by first responders.  In addition, the law preserved the FCC’s authority to reserve spectrum for unlicensed use, a lower-cost, lower-power approach that has brought us a host of innovative and efficient services, like wi-fi.

Congratulations to the FCC, NTIA and PCAST for their groundbreaking work to harness the full potential of the airwaves.

Tom Power is the Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Telecommunications at OSTP.

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