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Understanding Federal Spectrum Use

July 30, 2015 by Paige R. Atkins, Associate Administrator of the Office of Spectrum Management

In recent days, there has been a great deal of discussion about how much spectrum federal agencies use and whether that spectrum is being used efficiently. This is an important conversation to have and one that goes to the heart of NTIA’s statutory mission of fostering full and efficient use of the nation’s spectrum resources in a manner that most benefits the public interest. If we are to make progress toward a more efficient use of spectrum, it is also essential that this discussion include a full and balanced assessment of the challenges and trade-offs that must be addressed.

There is no question that commercial demand for spectrum has skyrocketed along with the use of smart phones, tablets and other wireless devices.  To help meet growing demand, President Obama called on NTIA five years ago to work with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to find 500 megahertz of additional spectrum for wireless broadband by 2020. Though both federal and nonfederal spectrum will be used to achieve this goal, much of this spectrum will come from repurposing bands now used by federal agencies. Most recently, NTIA worked with the FCC and the Department of Defense (DoD) to make 100 megahertz of federal spectrum available on a priority, shared basis in the 3.5 GHz band. With this latest move, we have repurposed 245 megahertz for commercial use and are nearly half way to reaching the President’s goal, which will be even closer in sight after the FCC’s incentive auction next year. We continue to work with the FCC, federal agencies, Congress and industry stakeholders to identify additional spectrum for potential repurposing, including through shared access.

At the same time, however, the federal government’s need for spectrum to provide mission-critical services also is increasing.  We often hear of how the federal government uses spectrum for vital purposes, including national security, emergency management and crisis communications.  But spectrum is essential to an extraordinarily broad range of other federal agency missions from the Federal Aviation Administration’s management of air traffic; to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s use of telepresence technology on its ocean exploration ship to reach on-shore personnel any time of day;  to NASA’s use of spectrum for the satellites that are sending back amazing pictures of Pluto from its New Horizons spacecraft.  In short, without adequate access to spectrum, many government activities that benefit every citizen would not be possible.

That, of course, does not alone answer the question of whether the agencies are using spectrum efficiently. Today, within the so-called “beachfront spectrum” that best supports mobile uses (225 MHz to 3700 MHz), only 17 percent is allocated for exclusive federal use, compared with 31 percent for exclusive non-federal use and 52 percent for shared use.  Such statistics, however, do not provide the full picture as there are frequencies that have been designated for federal use but are actually being employed predominantly for nonfederal uses (e.g., in the 902-928 MHz band).  Furthermore, it is essential to understand that no single federal agency has exclusive access to the bands allocated for its use.  In the 1755-1780 MHz band that the FCC recently sold as part of the AWS-3 auction, more than 15 different federal agencies providing 10 different types of services have been sharing this 25 megahertz segment. This differs from the common commercial licensing model, in which the licensee typically has exclusive use of the spectrum. NTIA is working to understand the extent to which federal agencies are efficiently utilizing spectrum today, and to developing realistic steps to improve our overall use of limited spectrum resources in the future.

However, our work is not without its challenges.  The process of repurposing and relocating spectrum is complicated and time consuming—particularly given the numerous different systems that can be occupying a single band.  It is for this reason, in part, that the Administration determined that it is imperative to develop greater capabilities for the sharing of spectrum between federal and nonfederal users. The recent achievements related to the 3.5 GHz spectrum demonstrate the promise of this approach. But in order to truly expand the opportunities that sharing provides, it is going to be necessary for all stakeholders to invest in the technologies that will make it possible. 

NTIA is committed to supporting innovation in the wireless sector by helping to make more spectrum available for commercial providers, while also ensuring federal agencies have the airwaves they need to perform important missions for the American people. We are also committed to working with all stakeholders who want to help us achieve this goal.