Federal agencies may have to share wireless spectrum with private sector once standards are set.

Patience Wait, Contributor

June 21, 2013

3 Min Read

10 Breakthrough DARPA Technologies

10 Breakthrough DARPA Technologies

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A White House presidential memorandum has expanded efforts for government agencies to find ways of sharing wireless spectrum with the private sector. Two agencies -- the National Institute for Standards and Technology and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration -- working with the FCC, National Security Staff and the Secretary of Commerce, will have primary responsibility for coordinating the effort. But further down the road all agencies are likely to feel the impact.

The memorandum, issued June 14, calls for a Spectrum Policy Team, within a year, to recommend ways to use spectrum more productively "throughout our economy and society and protect the current and future mission capabilities of agencies."

As part of the spectrum-sharing policy, that same day NIST and NTIA announced a Memorandum of Understanding to open a shared national Center for Advanced Communications in Boulder, Colo.

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"This new Center will pull together several related technology research areas under one organization where NIST and NTIA have complementary expertise," Jason Boehm, director of NIST's program coordination office, told InformationWeek. "The stronger coordination possible working within the Center and the ability to provide a single contact point for industry will help ensure U.S. advanced communications products are supported by the strongest possible science base and technical data."

The presidential memo directs all federal agencies to identify within a year how much of its spectrum could be shared with the private sector -- using metrics that NTIA has yet to develop. The memo cautioned that spectrum uses by first responders, law enforcement and national security could be made available provided measures are taken to protect sensitive and classified information.

What the memo does not mention is money -- specifically, what will happen to the proceeds generated if spectrum, even if shared, is auctioned off to private sector interests.

"I can tell you they're not going to give it away -- people are paying literally billions of dollars [at FCC auctions]," said Gregg Bailey, a director at Deloitte Consulting LLP, leader of the company's federal cloud practice, and former CIO at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

Bailey said he believes the impetus for this spectrum-sharing plan is to help government agencies make the transition more quickly. "One of the complaints commercial people have had in the past at auction is that they spend millions of dollars, then it takes the government years to transition out [of the spectrum block that was sold]," he said. "People would say, 'We'll give you more money if you'll give it up earlier.'"

It is not an instantaneous process to give up part of an agency's spectrum allocation; equipment may need to be changed, new encryption standards may have to be implemented. Some part of the funds raised by selling off shared spectrum may be returned to agencies to help cover the cost of transition, according to Bailey.

He added that the shared-spectrum policy may also be addressing pressure from some in Congress who believe the government should not reserve any of it for its own use. "There are some fundamental problems [with that] in today's world. We did a study for the Department of Justice on this … If the government were using more and more of the private spectrum, when you're in a crisis situation there's no guaranteed service on the commercial networks," Bailey said. "Even if you have a priority telephone, if it's jammed it's jammed. But if I have land mobile radio, I don't have to worry about it."

About the Author(s)

Patience Wait


Washington-based Patience Wait contributes articles about government IT to InformationWeek.

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