Committee Continues its Review of the Use of Federal Spectrum

September 13, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC – The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, chaired by Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), today held a hearing to examine the use of federal spectrum. Experts from the Department of Defense, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and the communications industry provided input on how to make spectrum that is currently allocated to the federal government available for the private sector and consumers, specifically focusing on the merits of relocating and sharing federal spectrum to create additional resources and meet growing demands.

Chairman Walden said, “In the months since the Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, which included the spectrum incentive auction provisions this subcommittee brought to the table, we have turned our attention to federal government usage of spectrum. One way we can create additional spectrum opportunities is through use of the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act. Under the CSEA, commercial providers bear the cost of moving federal incumbents to clear spectrum. Given the budgetary pressures facing the country — and the potential for sequestration to pose significant challenges to our defense agencies — we have an opportunity to work together to optimize the value of underutilized spectrum and upgrade equipment and services used by federal agencies.”

Walden continued, “Spectrum sharing may hold potential in the future for some spectrum bands where clearing is impossible or we have certainty that the cost of relocation exceeds the value of the spectrum. I am not ready to accept the opinion that ‘the norm for spectrum use should be sharing’ today. Working together we must increase efficiency, upgrade government systems, and make spectrum available to meet our country’s wireless broadband demand. I’m convinced we can create new jobs from our work and bring innovation and efficiency to the federal government.”

NTIA’s Karl Nebbia explained the administration’s recommendation to share spectrum. Nebbia testified, “In light of the significant challenges in repurposing the 1755-1780 MHz band, the NTIA is pursuing, with our industry and federal agency stakeholders, a new and innovative path forward that could allow us to make this band available faster and at a lower cost than would be possible under a traditional, relocation-only process, while still protecting critical federal missions. Such an approach relies on a combination of relocating federal users where feasible and affordable, sharing spectrum between federal agencies and commercial users where possible and practical.”

The independent Government Accountability Office relayed concerns regarding NTIA's evaluation.  Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues Mark Goldstein said, "GAO found it did not identify governmentwide spectrum needs and did not contain key elements and conform to best practices for strategic planning. Furthermore, NTIA's primary spectrum management operations do not focus on governmentwide needs. Instead, NTIA depends on agency self-evaluation of spectrum needs and focuses on mitigating interference among spectrum users, with limited emphasis on overall spectrum management. Additionally, NTIA's data management system is antiquated and lacks internal controls to ensure the accuracy of agency-reported data, making it unclear if reliable data inform decisions about federal spectrum use."

Goldstein also outlined the barriers of sharing spectrum, testifying, “According to the agency officials we contacted, federal agencies will typically not agree to share spectrum if it puts achieving their missions at risk… According to FCC officials, concerns about risk can drive conservative technical standards that make sharing impractical.” In addition, Goldstein explained that spectrum sharing can be costly, enforcement processes lengthy and unpredictable, and identifying spectrum suitable could be difficult due to incomplete and inaccurate data on available spectrum.

Steve Sharkey, Director of Chief Engineering and Technology Policy for T-Mobile USA, explained why relying on spectrum sharing as a primary solution would not fulfill the private sector’s needs. “Sharing can be a tool to facilitate the transition of government spectrum to commercial use, but the ultimate goal should be to reallocate to the extent possible,” said Sharkey. “Except for limited cases, shared spectrum is an inadequate resource because it is available only some of the time in particular places. Such a resource can help supplement a provider’s exclusive spectrum, but it cannot replace it, nor does it provide the incentives or certainty necessary for carriers to make the very substantial investments needed to deliver world-leading, high quality mobile broadband services to Americans.”

Department of Defense witness Major General Robert Wheeler explained, “In general, in order to avoid critical mission impacts, there are three things the DoD requires if we are to relocate our systems out of spectrum to be repurposed for wireless broadband: cost reimbursements, sufficient time, and comparable spectrum.”

###