The Feds Play the Spectrum Shell Game

by on July 31, 2012 · 2 comments

On CNET today, I’ve posted a long critique of the recent report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) urging the White House to reverse course on a two-year old order to free up more spectrum for mobile users.

In 2010, soon after the FCC’s National Broadband Plan raised alarms about the need for more spectrum for an explosion in mobile broadband use, President Obama issued a Memorandum ordering federal agencies to free up as much as 500 MHz. of radio frequencies currently assigned to them.

After a great deal of dawdling, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which oversees spectrum assignments within the federal government, issued a report earlier this year that seemed to offer progress. 95 MHz. of very attractive spectrum could in fact be cleared in the ten years called for by the White House.

But reading between the lines, it was clear that the 20 agencies involved in the plan had no serious intention of cooperating. Their cost estimates for relocation (which were simply reported by NTIA without any indication of how they’d been arrived at or even whether NTIA had been given any details) appeared to be based on an amount that would make any move economically impossible.

And the NTIA’s suggestion that some of the bands could be “shared” sounded appealing until the details revealed that the feds would place impossible conditions on that sharing.

In the end, the NTIA report was 200 pages of classic smoke-and-mirrors from an entrenched bureaucracy that is expert at avoiding change.

The PCAST report seemed to throw in the cards and accept the political reality that actual spectrum clearing in the federal bands would never happen. Instead, the President’s advisors doubled down on “sharing,” and called for a new “Spectrum Access System” that would be based on sharing technologies it admitted don’t exist yet.

SAS might be a better system in the long-term, but current technical and political limitations make such a system impractical. I argue in the piece that the NTIA and PCAST reports are just providing cover for federal agencies, notably the DoD and Justice, to avoid actually having to follow the President’s order and take aggressive steps to free up spectrum that is needed now. Whether this is intentional or not I leave to more savvy tea-leaf readers.

  • txpatriot

    PCAST just laid out the template that private spectrum holders (e.g., broadcasters) will use to argue why they shouldn’t be required to release, reassign or reallocate spectrum.  Thanx for a job well done.

  • Steve Crowley

    The CNET article says ” According to the plan, 300 MHz of added spectrum would be required by 2015, and 500 Mhz by 2010.”

    The 2010 year, as I’m sure you know, is a typo and should be 2020. My point with that tline is that the model used by the FCC to support the 300 MHz figure uses three invalid assumptions, and is thus itself invalid, as I describe in this blog post:

    The web publication DSL Prime observed that the authors of that spectrum model were do embarassed by it they refused to allow their names to be put on the paper describing it.

    On the NTIA report, I think you are right to question the cost estimates. I’d go further with concern that the report relies on self-reporting by the agencies, which have no incentive to provide accurate results, and do have an incentive to slant the results high.

    Regarding the technology not being available now, I’d put it this way: Today, I cannot buy a spectrum-sharing system as described by PCAST. The essential technologies needed to construct such a system, however, are there. Modern cellphones scan frequencies, identify base stations by unique identifiers, measure and report interference, and other tasks that will form the basis for a spectrum sharing system. (Indeed, cellphone users share their spectrum.) The refined technologies needed for spectrum sharing will be emerging over the next 10 years or so. Much development is needed, and the PCAST report provides for that development over time.

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