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'Spectrum Drought'

Building Trust Seen Important as NTIA Launches Studies of 5 Spectrum Bands

Wireless carriers are concerned and have many questions about the administration's processes for proposed studies under the national spectrum strategy that will examine the future of five bands as part of a possible spectrum pipeline, industry and government officials said. Carriers are most concerned about two bands, the lower 3 GHz and 7/8 GHz, which they see as possible spectrum for full-power licensed use. Meanwhile, USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter urged the leaders of the House and Senate Commerce committees Thursday night to reach a deal on legislation to “unite behind a national spectrum strategy” and reinstate the FCC’s lapsed auction authority.

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The White House’s strategy “was an important step forward,” but the FCC and NTIA “need clear direction from Congress,” Spalter said in a letter to Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., House Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and the panels’ ranking members. “There need to be clear goals for licensed spectrum while also identifying opportunities for unlicensed spectrum. Additionally, guidance on commercial use of mid-band spectrum, and/or other approaches will be helpful -- but substantive direction and a shot-clock sense of urgency are needed now to ensure this vital and finite resource gets put to its best and highest public uses.”

It’s been almost a year since Congress allowed the FCC’s spectrum auction mandate to lapse amid a fracas over a proposal to allow sales of the 3.1-3.45 GHz band before DOD was able to finish its now-completed study of how 5G use on those frequencies would impact incumbent military systems (see 2303090074), Spalter told the congressional leaders. “Our nation has set clear and bold connectivity goals and put substantial resources behind achieving them. But success will also hinge on the availability of … more licensed spectrum for commercial use. Doing so is a long and complex process. We must begin it now.” Cantwell, Rodgers and House Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone, D-N.J., have been backing the Spectrum Auction Reauthorization Act (HR-3565), which would renew the FCC’s mandate through Sept. 30, 2026 (see 2305240069). Senate Commerce ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, opposes HR-3565 and is circulating his own draft 2023 Spectrum Pipeline Act as an alternative (see 2311220063) that would renew the FCC’s remit through Sept. 30, 2027.

The national spectrum strategy calls for a co-led NTIA and DOD study of the lower 3 GHz band. DOD last year filed at the Commerce Department a congressionally mandated study of that band, the Emerging Mid-Band Radar Spectrum Sharing Feasibility Assessment (EMBRSS) study (see 2309280087). NTIA plans to release parts of the study, which has remained under wraps. NTIA has a presidential deadline of March 14 to release an implementation plan for the strategy, which other agencies are reviewing. The EMBRSS study process was built on the earlier Partnering to Advance Trusted and Holistic Spectrum Solutions (PATHSS) study, which brought together DOD officials, industry representatives and others “to explore sharing solutions to make more mid-band spectrum available for commercial 5G, specifically in 3.1-3.45 GHz.”

Lower 3 GHz

DOD officials are clear that moving defense systems from lower 3 GHz will be difficult and expensive. DOD Chief Information Officer John Sherman said at a recent NTIA symposium (see 2402010057) that the military has naval, ground-based and air-based radars in the band. Industry officials said the band is, in particular, home to the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), which DOD is upgrading.

At the NTIA symposium, Sherman said the department is willing to consider clearing part of the band “perhaps for future airborne radars,” which wasn't part of the EMBRSS study.

Industry officials say the new study will likely build on the previous two. One question, they said, is the meaning of having DOD co-lead a study.

Some bands of most interest to wireless carriers “are already heavily encumbered and being heavily encumbered even more,” Jennifer Warren, Lockheed Martin vice president-regulatory affairs and public policy, said during a Technology Policy Institute webinar last week. The need for wideband coverage “is not unique to national carriers,” she said.

PATHSS started a process of “actual trust building” between federal and commercial users, former NTIA Administrator David Redl said at the TPI conference. Finding ways of using spectrum more efficiently will “have to be done collaboratively -- considering the different technologies, considering the real physical challenges … and considering the real economic challenges that are faced on the commercial side and the mission challenges that are faced on the federal side,” he said.

Redl said there’s no longer the “low-hanging fruit” of bands that can be easily picked off for licensed use.

The national spectrum strategy will succeed or fail based on White House leadership,” said Recon Analytics’ Roger Entner. DOD has said “in so many words” it doesn’t see a path forward in the lower 3 GHz, he said. “DOD will only discover a path forward when the White House leans into it,” he said: Otherwise, it’s just going to be the same answer but using different words to say no.

Years Away

"The history of spectrum conflicts teaches us that what seems to be complicated and intractable suddenly can be quickly resolved if the right amount of money shows up in the equation,” Cooley’s Robert McDowell wrote in an email: “The current situation is not different, but with the slow, to non-existent pace of spectrum legislation in Congress any solution is still years away." McDowell said, "All of this means we are going to be in a spectrum drought for a long time."

We'll see what NTIA comes up with in the implementation plan “before I can comment on how well it would work,” said Monisha Ghosh, engineering professor at University of Notre Dame and former FCC chief technologist. “I believe that NTIA is being very thoughtful in developing the plan to address the concerns of all stakeholders,” she said.

DOD wants to force carriers to accept a dynamic spectrum sharing regime in the lower 3 GHz, said Digital Progress Institute President Joel Thayer. Congress already identified 3.1-3.45 GHz as a primary target for mid-band in the Spectrum Innovation Act of 2022, he said: “I don’t understand why NTIA requires further study on that at all.” Similarly, federal agencies in 2018 began collecting information about their operations in 7.125-8.4 GHz, he said. “More than five years later, it appears they are still gathering information,” Thayer said. “We have done this dance more than a few times over now.”

Commercial and federal users have a history of sharing, as exemplified by AWS-3 and the citizens broadband radio service bands, emailed Kristian Stout, director-innovation policy at the International Center for Law & Economics. “My main concern is that the agencies don't use the study process as a way to drag out implementation of sharing in those bands,” he said: “It’s important that inertia doesn't dominate the process of getting this bandwidth into use.”

It’s not a secret that DOD would prefer avoiding changing its operations in the lower 3 GHz band, said Joe Kane, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation director-broadband and spectrum policy. On that band, Kane said he will be watching for the implementation plan, but NTIA leadership should help provide the “scope and methodology” allowing policymakers “to assess all options” with the full evidence on the table. “This will be a real test of whether spectrum policy is up to the challenge of reconciling competing uses of spectrum in an evidence-based way,” Kane said.

Harmonized mid-band spectrum for 5G could unlock some $200 billion for America’s economy during the next 10 years, said a study last week by Accenture, commissioned by CTIA. While other countries “are rapidly coalescing around a set of internationally harmonized bands to support their 5G networks and realize these benefits, the U.S. has less spectrum than its international peers, including China, and no plans to free up additional 5G spectrum in the near term,” the study said.

The DOD already shares the lower 3 GHz band with full-power 5G systems in other countries, Umair Javed, CTIA senior vice president-spectrum, said in an email. The 7/8 GHz band “offers one of the few near-term opportunities for the U.S. to lead in the development of a globally harmonized 5G band,” he said: “We urge the Administration to move quickly and make these bands available on that basis.”