The federal Government Plays the Spectrum Shell Game

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On CNET today, I’ve posted a long critique of the recent report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) urging the White House to reverse course on a two-year old order to free up more spectrum for mobile users.

In 2010, soon after the FCC’s National Broadband Plan raised alarms about the need for more spectrum for an explosion in mobile broadband use, President Obama issued a Memorandum ordering federal agencies to free up as much as 500 MHz. of radio frequencies currently assigned to them.

After a great deal of dawdling, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which oversees spectrum assignments within the federal government, issued a report earlier this year that seemed to offer progress.  95 MHz. of very attractive spectrum could in fact be cleared in the ten years called for by the White House.

But reading between the lines, it was clear that the 20 agencies involved in the plan had no serious intention of cooperating.  Their cost estimates (which were simply reported by NTIA without any indication of how they’d been arrived at or even whether NTIA had been given any details) for relocation appeared to be based on an amount that would make any move economically impossible.

And the NTIA’s suggestion that some of the bands could be “shared” sounded appealing until the details revealed that the feds would place impossible conditions on that sharing.

In the end, the NTIA report was 200 pages of classic smoke-and-mirrors from an entrenched bureaucracy that is expert at avoiding change.

The PCAST report seemed to throw in the cards and accept the political reality that actual spectrum clearing in the federal bands would never happen.  Instead, the President’s advisors doubled down on “sharing,” and called  for a new “Spectrum Access System” that would be based on sharing technologies it admitted don’t exist yet.

SAS might be a better system in the long-term, but current technical and political limitations make such a system impractical. I argue in the piece that the NTIA and PCAST reports are just providing cover for federal agencies, notably the DoD and Justice, to avoid actually having to follow the President’s order and take aggressive steps to free up spectrum that is needed now.  Whether this is intentional or not I leave to more savvy tea-leaf readers.