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Promoting Spectrum Sharing In the Wireless Broadband Era

In the summer of 2010 -- just three years after the introduction of the iPhone -- President Obama called on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to collaborate with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to free up critical radio spectrum to fuel the breakneck growth of the wireless broadband market. Today, this directive is more pressing than ever, with the wild popularity of smartphones and tablets driving unprecedented commercial demand for mobile bandwidth.

Identifying the spectrum to keep up is a top priority for NTIA, which manages federal spectrum usage. And promoting spectrum sharing across the public and private sectors is an important key to achieving this goal.

At NTIA, we recognize that spectrum is the lifeblood of the mobile broadband revolution. We are committed to ensuring the industry has the bandwidth it needs to continue to innovate and thrive.

But we face an important balancing act since federal agencies also rely on this precious and finite resource to perform all sorts of mission-critical functions – from communicating with weather satellites (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to navigating passenger planes (Federal Aviation Administration) to operating weapons systems (Defense Department).

Working in consultation with the FCC, which oversees commercial and other non-federal spectrum uses, NTIA has made good progress toward President Obama’s target of freeing up 500 megahertz of spectrum for licensed and unlicensed wireless broadband services by 2020.

Through fiscal year 2014, NTIA had formally recommended or otherwise identified 335 megahertz of spectrum for potential reallocation. That includes spectrum in the 1695-1710 and 1755-1780 bands auctioned off in the FCC’s successful AWS-3 auction.

The auction, which will fund important federal programs and pump billions into the U.S Treasury, showcases the potential for spectrum sharing. While many of the incumbent federal users in the auctioned bands will be relocating to other frequencies, some will instead be sharing their spectrum with new users.

To achieve the President’s goal, we need to move beyond the traditional approach of clearing government-held spectrum of federal users in order to auction it off to the private sector for exclusive use. Too often, relocating incumbent operations is too costly, too time-consuming and too disruptive to federal missions. The future lies in sharing spectrum – across government agencies and commercial services, and across time, geography and other dimensions in the future.

We are collaborating with the FCC to explore the possibility of making 100 megahertz of spectrum available for shared small cell use in the 3.5 GHz band currently used primarily for military radar systems. This could be an important pivot point toward a new sharing paradigm. We are also evaluating the feasibility of increased sharing by unlicensed devices in the 5 GHz band. And we are working with federal agencies to assess their spectrum usage in five bands accounting for 960 megahertz to prioritize bands for detailed sharing feasibility studies.

To support these efforts, we are seeking to increase transparency into existing federal spectrum use. Last year, NTIA unveiled, a new online tool that provides band-by-band descriptions of federal spectrum uses between 225 MHz and 5 GHz, including a summary of frequency assignments authorized by NTIA. We will continue to improve that tool to make it more easily searchable and user-friendly, and to provide as much helpful data as we can without disclosing sensitive information.

If spectrum sharing is to become reality, though, we need to build trust on multiple levels. First, we need to build trust in dynamic sharing technology, including spectrum databases and smart radios that can track which frequencies are available for use. Our new Center for Advanced Communications in Boulder, a partnership with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), will conduct vital research and testing to drive development of dynamic sharing technology.

Second, we must build trust between the public and private sectors so that we can partner to identify more sharing opportunities and collaborate to make sharing work. With the help of our Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee, NTIA will increase industry engagement to enhance this trust moving forward.

Finally, we need to build trust in policies and processes to ensure that everyone – public and private sector alike - plays by the rules. Our proposed model city initiative, which will serve as a test bed to evaluate spectrum-sharing technology in a real-world environment, will provide a good opportunity to develop these policies and processes.

It has been less than five years since President Obama issued his prescient spectrum directive. It’s impossible to know what the mobile broadband revolution will look like five years from now. But whatever the wireless future brings, NTIA will help make it possible.