Block of spectrum is currently occupied by USAF and other federal users, could soon see smartphone use

America's largest smartphone carrier, Verizon Wireless -- a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and Vodafone Group Plc.'s (LON:VOD) -- has been active in warning of a dire "spectrum shortage" that could cripple expansion and upgrades of its U.S. wireless network.  AT&T Inc. (T), the nation's second largest carrier, voiced similar concerns.

I. TV Spectrum Reauction Gets the Greenlight

The Obama administration has been on top of this issue, and has proposed some solutions, although they are not without controversy.  His official goal is to double the amount of spectrum available to telecommunication companies.

To achieve that end he's proposed a special U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) spectrum auction, which would allow TV providers to sell their unused TV spectrum left over from the transition to digital.  The auction was recently authorized by Congress as a line item on the payroll taxcut extension bill (officially "The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act").  

Congress Buillding wide
The contentious TV spectrum reauction narrowly squeaked through Congress.
[Image Source: U.S. Congress]

However, many remain concerned that the auction will create interference problems with TV broadcasts.  These fears are accentuated by the fact that "Obama's" FCC recently almost let LightSquared, Inc. -- a heavy donor to the Obama campaign -- deploy a risky satellite LTE project, which was estimated to cause catastrophic interference with 75 percent of GPS receivers.  Critics are also concerned that the authorization could offer a backdoor to mandatory spectrum seizures.

II. Attention Turns to Federal Spectrum Reallocation, Sharing

A key second-tier of the spectrum push is in scrounging up unused or relocateable spectrum in the federal government's current holdings.

The U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has just released a report evaluating the 1755–1850 MHz block (95 MHz total) for reallocation.

The block is currently allocated in chunks to 20 federal agencies, with 3,100 total chunks granted.  The spectrum is being actively used by law enforcement surveillance, military tactical communications, air combat training, and precision-guided munitions.

While the NTIA report indicates that there is strong promise for reallocation, it urges caution in considering this an "overnight" solution.  It indicates that reallocation could take "more than a decade".  And it says that complete reallocation may be "no longer feasible".

As an alternative, it suggests a slow reallocation process, piece by piece.  In the meantime it advocates a "sharing" solution.  Private-public sector spectrum sharing is a relatively new development.  And it won't necessarily be easy.  Sharing brings a lot of new complications to the traditional scheme of direct allocation -- for instance, who gets priority if a commercial-utilized chunk of spectrum suddenly is needed for federal use.

Air combat training
It will take over a decade to reallocate and/or share the 115 MHz of spectrum in the 1755-1850 MHz block, which is currently used for federal purposes, such as air combat training.
[Image Source: USAF photo/Senior Airman Clay Lancaste]

Nonetheless, sharing could turn President Obama's 10-year spectrum doubling proposal from unlikely to very doable.  The NTIA has already advised reallocation/sharing of a separate 115 MHz block of spectrum, so the total proposed push would be a major chunk of 210 MHz.  That makes the total proposed reallocation reach 40 percent of the president's goal (500+ MHz).  

While that figure may be a bit overoptimistic given that the contingent word in the 1755 MHz block's sharing/reallocation proposed scheme is "partial", the NTIA still has approximately 2,000 MHz worth of federally allocated spectrum chunks to look at.  So the possibility of eliminating federal spectrum waste via public-private spectrum sharing and/or direct reallocation could yield fruit for years to come.

While the finer details must certainly be debated and critiqued (recall, the government did accidentally sell a key chunk of spectrum used for B2 stealth bomber communications), the efforts are certainly worthwhile and warranted.  While the issue of "spectrum hoarding" by large carriers does need to be addressed, the fact remains that faster and more reliable wireless internet services to devices invariably requires more spectrum.  Thus whether or not spectrum is running out today, it will almost certainly run out tomorrow (metaphorically speaking), and it's good to start preparing for that inevitability.

Source: NTIA [press release]

"What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders." -- Michael Dell, after being asked what to do with Apple Computer in 1997

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