You are here

Remarks by Assistant Secretary Strickling at ISART

July 25, 2012

Remarks by Lawrence E. Strickling
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
13th Annual International Symposium on Advanced Radio Technologies (ISART)
Boulder, Colorado
July 25, 2012

- As prepared for delivery -

NTIA is pleased to host the 13th Annual International Symposium on Advanced Radio Technologies here in Boulder, the home of our research and engineering laboratory. I would like to recognize the co-chairs of this year’s ISART, Eric Nelson and Chriss Hammerschmidt, for all of their hard work in putting together what promises to be an informative and insightful program.  I also want to acknowledge Mike Cotton for his efforts chairing the previous two ISART meetings and for continuing to help out this year.

This symposium, with its theme of spectrum sharing, comes at a propitious time.

Just last Friday, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released an important report on spectrum sharing.  This report came on the heels of NTIA’s study of the 1755-1850 megahertz band that we released earlier this spring.

I am particularly pleased that this panel of experts has validated what we at NTIA have been saying for the past year:  We need to find a new way of making spectrum available for commercial broadband, and that new way has to embrace the sharing of spectrum between federal agencies and industry.

What I hope you take away from these reports are the following key points:

First, spectrum sharing is critical to solving and satisfying the nation’s long-term needs for more spectrum for commercial broadband.

Second, we will need to explore a variety of sharing models, and we should not constrain technology development by picking one solution or picking it too soon.

Third, collaboration among all parties, but especially between federal agencies and industry, is essential to successful spectrum sharing.

Now, spectrum sharing—while it’s becoming a hot topic now—is nothing new.  It dates back 100 years to the Radio Act of 1912.  That was the first law enacted to regulate the use or operation of “any apparatus for radio communication.”  It specified certain regulations, to be enforced by the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, to prevent or minimize “interference with communication between stations.”  One of these first regulations provided an explicit sharing mechanism granting priority for distress signals from ships.  “All stations [were] required to give absolute priority to signals and radiograms relating to ships in distress; to cease all sending on hearing a distress signal; and, except when engaged in answering or aiding the ship in distress, to refrain from sending until all signals and radiograms relating thereto are completed.”  While obviously rudimentary, my engineering friends might refer to this as the first “listen-before-talk,” or “LBT,” spectrum-sharing protocol. 

Another one of these original radio regulations mandated time-based sharing by requiring a “division of time” that established a quiet period for certain private or commercial shore transmitters “during the first fifteen minutes of each hour.”   Naval or military stations were then granted those “first fifteen minutes of each hour” to transmit their “signals or radiograms.” But this time-sharing provision also included a geographic-sharing component in that it only applied “[a]t important seaports and at all other places where naval or military and private or commercial shore stations operate in such close proximity that interference with the work of naval and military stations cannot be avoided” through other, technical means.  And yes, “[e]very station [was] required to designate a certain definite wave length as the normal sending and receiving wave length of the station”, which today we call “frequency assignments”.

So, 100 years ago marked the start of the basic methods of sharing the radio spectrum by exploiting the time, space, and frequency dimensions of “the ether.”  One-hundred years later, we now find ourselves moving toward a new but similar model of spectrum sharing, exploiting these same properties and dimensions, but making use of modern technology to help do it as densely and efficiently as possible. 

Our challenge today is to come up with a framework within which to move forward to implement sharing. 

As the PCAST report concludes, the old method of clearing spectrum of federal users and then making it available for the exclusive use of commercial providers is not sustainable.  We have moved the easy systems.  To continue the old method of spectrum reallocation costs too much money and takes too long.  The wireless broadband industry and its customers, as well as our economy, cannot afford the cost and delay.  Moreover, over the years, the critical missions performed by federal agencies have required radio systems of greater and greater complexity and have increased the agencies’ needs for spectrum.  The opportunities to find spectrum to which we can relocate federal operations are rapidly dwindling.

Nowhere is the confluence of all these factors better illustrated than in the 95 megahertz of spectrum located between 1755 and 1850 MHz.  Today, more than 20 agencies have over 3000 frequency assignments in this band, with uses ranging from point-to-point microwave to covert law enforcement surveillance to air combat training systems, where radio transmitters are literally embedded in the skin of the aircraft.  We released a study earlier this spring describing all of these uses and projected that it would take at least ten years and $18 billion to clear this band of these federal uses and relocate them to other frequencies.  Granted these were preliminary numbers, but even if you discount them, it would still cost too much and take too long to relocate all of these systems.

The solution, as PCAST recommends, is for federal agencies and commercial users to share the spectrum.  While this approach presents some new technology challenges, we are already moving forward to implement it where we can in the 1755-1850 band.  Through our Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee (CSMAC), we have organized five working groups made up of representatives from industry and federal agencies—an example of the public/private cooperation this Administration has favored—to evaluate all the different uses in this band and determine the fastest, most cost-effective way forward to allow for commercial use of this 95 megahertz of spectrum.

In some cases, traditional relocation will likely be the recommendation.  Systems such as point-to-point microwave circuits are relatively straightforward to move, and we have spectrum where these systems can be relocated.  In other cases, such as satellite earth stations, defining geographic exclusion zones to protect the earth stations may then allow commercial entry in large parts of the country not affected by such zones.  But in addition, we are now adding a third option to the discussions—the possibility that industry and the federal agencies can both use spectrum in the same geographic area through the use of today’s new technologies that will then allow the more efficient use of this spectrum.  The CSMAC working groups are now up and running, and we hope to receive their recommendations at the beginning of next year.

As I said at the outset, good collaboration between public and private interests will be key to reaching a successful outcome.  And if we can prove out the model in these discussions, it will be important to maintain this collaborative approach as we discuss other frequency bands and the potential for sharing in such bands.

Moreover, we have to be open to trying a number of approaches based on the specific systems we are evaluating.  If we try to come up with a single approach too soon, we risk discouraging the development of other approaches and technologies that could prove to be superior.  Designing our process with the 1755-1850 band to utilize separate working groups focusing on separate systems hopefully will encourage experimentation with a number of different solutions.

I do not want to minimize the challenges in front of us. In addition to the technical issues, we will need to address practical questions of determining who has priority, what the process will be for coordination, and what the enforcement regime will be.  These issues will require as much attention as the purely technical ones, and I am glad to see that this conference will begin to address some of those issues.

But we cannot let the technical and practical complexity of what we are facing be used as a reason for not aggressively and wholeheartedly confronting and solving these issues as quickly as we can. We have to solve the sharing issues in order to meet the growing demand for spectrum that shows no signs of abating.

I encourage all of you to roll up your sleeves over the next two days and thereafter and to be creative in your efforts.  Let’s look for how we can increase use of the spectrum and not just get trapped by all the reasons and all the barriers that have limited us over these past 100 years.  We are working at a historic and critical time, and your contributions can be a key part of the effort to keep the mobile broadband revolution going while ensuring access for our mission-critical users when and where it is needed.  I look forward to a healthy and lively discussion over the coming days in continuation of the collaboration between government, industry, and academia that is a hallmark of playing of the ISART conference. 

Thank you.