Report Urges Shift to Spectrum Sharing
Although the short, post-Memorial Day week was not short on news,* we focus instead today on news that first broke while we were all scrambling to begin our holiday. On May 25, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) held a meeting and released recommendations on better using spectrum currently used by the federal government.
Because of consumers’ increased reliance on wireless phones and other devices, demand for mobile voice and data capacity is booming. Many government departments and agencies have been allocated spectrum over the years, but may not be making the best use of that capacity. In recent years, there have been many calls to clear government users off of various spectrum bands and unleash them for auction to wireless carriers. However, recent research found that clearing just one 95 MHz band will take 10 years, cost $18 billion, and cause significant disruption.
John Markoff reported in the New York Times that PCAST’s report urges President Barack Obama to adopt new computer technologies to make better use of a huge swath of the radio spectrum now controlled by federal agencies. In short, PCAST recommends that the President:
- issue a new memorandum regarding spectrum;
- state the policy of the US government is to share underutilized Federal spectrum; and
- identify immediately 1,000 MHz of Federal spectrum for sharing with the private sector.
The shift, which could be accomplished by presidential signature — and without Congressional involvement — would relieve spectrum congestion and generate far more revenue for the federal government than auctioning spectrum to wireless carriers, according to PCAST. Making better use of the spectrum for cellphones would allow for more services, more competition and possibly lower prices for consumers using cellphone data services.
Silicon Valley venture capitalist Mark P. Gorenberg presented PCAST’s recommendations. The new plan, which calls on the government to electronically rent or lease spectrum for periods of time as short as seconds using newly available computerized radio technologies. PCAST believes that agile radio technologies that make it possible for computerized radio systems to share spectrum on a vastly more efficient basis would make it possible to move from an era of scarcity to one of abundance. The central point of the report is that while there is no new spectrum available, new technologies can vastly increase the capacity of existing spectrum.
PCAST concludes that the radio spectrum could be used as much as 40,000 times as efficiently as it is currently and the committee recommends an approach that could increase capacity 1,000 fold, Gorenberg said. “We’re living with spectrum that is of a policy that was really set in motion by technology of 100 years ago,” he said. “That’s led to a fragmentation of the spectrum that has led to inefficiency and artificial scarcity.”
PCAST calls for a tiered system in which different users would have different priority, possibly based on whether they were a government user, a user who was prepared to pay more for a higher quality-of-service, or a casual user who might be assigned the lowest priority and pay the lowest rate. Unlike today’s unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum, which can be used freely, the newly available spectrum would require devices “register” in a database that would then control the terms of their access to the spectrum.
The new radio technology was pioneered during the late 1990s and is described as “cognitive” or “agile” radio. Such computer-controlled radios inside a cellphone can rapidly switch the frequencies they broadcast and receive on based on an arbitrary set of rules. One analogy to describe the technology might be a freeway system, in which individual vehicles could quickly switch lanes or drive more closely together. Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, a co-author of the recommendations, said, “One of the reasons we think we will see this dramatic economic expansion around radio-based systems in the future is that we can have a dramatic lowering of the apparent cost of gaining access and that will be facilitated by the registration system.”
The report also calls on the president to create a “synthetic” currency that could be used to entice federal agencies into offering more spectrum to the system. The proposed system would in effect increase an agency’s budget if it was willing to give up, or share its spectrum.
PCAST urges immediate action to get started:
- Establish Spectrum Sharing Partnership Steering Committee: an Advisory Committee of Industry representatives on Federal spectrum sharing implementation;
- Provide Scalable Real-World Test Services to test the spectrum bands and public safety;
- Release Research and Design Wireless Innovation Fund (WIN) created in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012
PCAST also offered these recommendations on Federal spectrum management oversight:
- Formalize the White House‐based Spectrum Management Team (SMT) of the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, National Security Staff, Office of Management and Budget, and National Economic Council to work with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration;
- Reexamine Partitioning of Federal Spectrum Usage in Light of Current and Emerging Technologies;
- Support International Harmonization of new Shared Federal Bands;
- Implement a Mechanism that gives Federal Agencies Incentives to Share Spectrum;
- Redefine Spectrum Relocation Fund to Revolving “Spectrum Efficiency Fund;” and
- Experiment with new shorter-term license economic licensing models.
Martin Cooper, the former vice president of Motorola who helped create the first working cellphone, has been advocating this new approach for over 20 years. “The magic that makes all of this work is already known,” he told New York Times reporter Brian Chen. “It’s several technologies that, put together, are called dynamic spectrum access.” The technology that lets many people use the same radio channel at the same time is called smart antenna technology or adaptive array technology or interference mitigation. This technology uses computer processors to take the signals from multiple antennas at each location and sorts the various signals out so they don’t interfere with each other.
PCAST said the new approach could mean that spectrum is used 40,000 times as efficiently as it is today. Cooper says reaching that goal could still take 20 years, but an immediate jump couple be 10-20x efficiency. He also cautioned that there’s technical and legal hurdles ahead. He believes that the government also needs to put more pressure on existing users of the spectrum to use the spectrum more effectively. “There are ways of measuring how well an operator or a broadcaster, how efficiently they’re using it,” he said. “And if you can measure it, you can tell them, hey, we the public own the spectrum. You don’t own it, you just license it. If you don’t use it efficiently, we’re going to take it back. That’s what they should be doing.”
Chen also interviewed Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA, the trade association for the wireless industry. Guttman-McCabe said, “My biggest issue with that approach is we’re not aware that that technology exists in a really truly commercially viable or scalable format. We’re excited about some of the other ideas that are in the report. We’re eager to see that the administration is going to focus on clearing spectrum and that the fallback will be sharing — that the gold standard is trying to find cleared spectrum, like they have in Germany, U.K., France, or Spain. All of these countries have found hundreds of megahertz of spectrum that is clear in the last year and a half basically.” In short, carriers are happy PCAST explored sharing – “The ‘but’ is, we also want to make sure the government is working to clear spectrum to the extent it can be cleared.” Why?
“Part of it depends on who gets access to the spectrum they’re sharing. Part of it depends on whether or not entities can build a business model around this. If you look at the report, when you’re sharing with the government you would be a secondary user. If you look at the way spectrum is currently allocated, if they buy it in auction they would want to know what they’re getting. How often would they have access, how often would they be trumped by the government user?”
Of CTIA’s response, Cooper said, “I keep repeating this: How can 20 percent more spectrum — which is in their wildest dreams as much as they’re ever going to get — how can that solve the problem when you need 20 times more spectrum? You can’t. They’ve got to be pushing harder on technology. They’re not using technology that exists today and was demonstrated 10 years ago.”
* The two biggest stories may have been the New York Times’ revelation of US cyberwarfare attack against Iran and a House Subcommittee hearing on proposals the International Telecommunications Union is considering about United Nations regulation of the Internet.
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