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'A Crucial Time'

NTIA Pressured as It Finalizes Spectrum Strategy Implementation Plan

NTIA is facing increasing pressure from carriers for additional spectrum for full-power licensed use, and from interests favoring a more open-ended approach, especially in the lower 3 GHz and 7/8 GHz bands, as the agency finalizes an implementation plan for the national spectrum strategy, due for release March 14. DOD is defending its systems in the bands targeted by carriers. Meanwhile, there are questions about how much longer Scott Harris, NTIA senior spectrum adviser, will remain at the agency after the implementation plan is released, industry officials told us.

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Federal agencies are reviewing a draft implementation plan and providing feedback to NTIA, officials said. NTIA didn't comment.

In a letter to NTIA Monday, a broad coalition of groups and companies called on the FCC to take a broad view of spectrum in the implementation plan (see 2403040050). CTIA has been vigorous in its own advocacy, pressing for exclusive use licenses in the lower 3 and 7/8 GHz bands (see 2401300080).

NTIA typically hasn’t been in the position of having to develop anything like this strategy, with the FCC more typically in the hot seat, said Richard Bernhardt, Wireless ISP Association vice president-spectrum and industry. CTIA and other groups have been pushing for exclusive use “and they’re pressing that even harder,” he said.

The coalition that sent Monday's letter is looking for “much greater diversity and flexibility in use and the ability to do more sharing -- to open up spectrum to smaller and medium-sized users, as well as large users,” Bernhardt added. There’s a limited amount of spectrum and limited ability to use that spectrum, he said. It seems NTIA is listening and understands there are no easy answers as spectrum is complex, he said. “NTIA has good reason to listen,” he added.

The spectrum strategy hits the right notes, “recognizing that there are multiple uses of spectrum, multiple systems that can be successful in using spectrum, multiple stakeholders,” said Mary Brown, an adviser to WifiForward and a former Cisco executive. Having a transparent process to figure out how best to use spectrum “was a very good development,” she said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm around the national spectrum strategy” and the implementation plan is “the next shoe to drop,” she said.

Brown hopes the implementation plan will “create a path forward” that considers the coexistence of users in the lower 3 and 7/8 GHz bands, potentially with sharing based on the citizens broadband radio service band.

Carrier Needs

Other wireless industry advocates say the clear need is for more licensed spectrum.

"The lack of public policy solutions to put more spectrum into the hands of American consumers is quickly creating a desperate situation at a crucial time,” said Cooley’s Robert McDowell. “We need to find more bands to auction for exclusive use licenses, and Congress needs to restore FCC auction authority” as soon as possible, he said. Time is running out, he said.

While the U.S. is a leader in several aspects of 5G technology, it could be falling behind on making mid-band spectrum available for licensed use, Chris Pearson, president of 5G Americas. said in an email. “Mid-band spectrum in the 3.1-3.45 GHz range is critical for 5G and 5G-advanced use cases, while the upper mid-band spectrum ranges from 7.125-15.35 GHz and especially below 10 GHz, is key to unlocking the next generation of innovative technologies and services,” he said.

America needs more full-power, licensed spectrum to meet growing consumer demand, secure our innovation leadership, and enhance our global economic competitiveness,” emailed CTIA Chief Communications Officer Nick Ludlum. “We’re confident that NTIA will follow the clear commitments laid out in the administration’s National Spectrum Strategy, study all options for making more mid-band spectrum available to meet these goals, and continue to fuel competition for home broadband subscribers.”

Monisha Ghosh, engineering professor at the University of Notre Dame and former FCC chief technologist, said she agrees “in principle” with the advocates of sharing spectrum. International mobile telecommunications technologies “can, and should, be deployed in any kind of spectrum -- exclusively licensed, shared or unlicensed,” she said.

While exclusively licensed spectrum “will always be required,” NTIA's broadband, equity, access and deployment program will mean increasing fiber connectivity across the U.S., Ghosh said. High-power cellular networks “should focus more on delivering ubiquitous 100/20 [Mbps] coverage outdoors rather than on addressing all the wireless connectivity needs we face today, some of which are better served by alternate spectrum allocations,” she said.

The most productive wireless ecosystem” relies on exclusively licensed, shared and licensed-by-rule spectrum, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at New America. The challenge for NTIA is that the military relies on the lower 3 GHz and 7 GHz bands, he said.

NTIA should focus on coexistence in the implementation plan, Calabrese said. While clearing a portion of military spectrum bands may be possible, “it is equally important for NTIA and DOD to agree on coexistence mechanisms that facilitate at least local and lower-power access for commercial use on a shared basis, much as the FCC’s CBRS rules allow the sharing of Navy radar spectrum,” he said.

NTIA is trying to build “a broad policy that goes to a wide range of issues that go beyond merely a spectrum wish list,” emailed Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld: “They are trying to get at fundamental problems … that people grumble about but rarely spend money to lobby about. So that causes friction.”

NTIA also wants to “calm the previous chaos on federal spectrum allocation,” Feld said: “That means a much more inclusive process and an environment where NTIA is not going to simply tell DOD and other federal agencies 'look, we need this spectrum for next generation wireless, so you are just going to have to figure out how to move.'” That could mean not push reallocation bands high on CTIA’s wish list, he said. “This creates a great deal of disappointment for an industry not known for its patience or willingness to accommodate federal users,” he said. Feld said the good news for NTIA is there has been little pressure from Congress to “override the other federal agencies and immediately designate controversial bands for auction.” Lawmakers are also less focused than in the past on using auctions to balance the budget, he said.

NTIA should move quickly to study the bands highlighted, said Kristian Stout, director-innovation policy at the International Center for Law & Economics. “There is a clear need to provide spectrum for both licensed and unlicensed uses” and “innovative spectrum sharing models” like CBRS have proven successful, he said.