December 16, 2016–As he prepares to leave the agency next month, NTIA head Lawrence E. Strickling today called for the development of receiver standards to protect against interference to authorized spectrum operations, and he also said there is a need to better quantify use of spectrum by federal and commercial entities. During a speech at a 5G event organized by the Hudson Institute, Mr. Strickling said great progress has been made in the last eight years, through collaboration between federal agencies and between the government and industry, in freeing up spectrum for commercial services, while meeting the growing needs for frequencies of the Department of Defense and other agencies.
He said “there is no longer any question that spectrum sharing has to be a major part of the solution, and the only way sharing will work is by maintaining and even extending collaborative and cooperative processes and relationships that bring all affected stakeholders together.” He noted as examples the negotiations and analyses that led to an agreement to free up government spectrum for the FCC’s AWS-3 auction, as well as work to share spectrum between the government and commercial entities in both the 3.5 gigahertz band and millimeter-wave spectrum above 24 GHz.
Mr. Strickling also said that “as the airwaves become more congested, we need to develop and enforce minimum technical rules to protect against unauthorized harmful interference. Automated enforcement approaches make a lot of sense but will require increased investment to develop interference analysis tools. I also believe we’re going to have to finally address the performance characteristics of spectrum receivers. Otherwise, you can limit the ability to effectively use all available spectrum. And we must take advantage of new opportunities such as 5G to build enforcement tools into the technology.”
Mr. Strickling also said that “as a nation, and really even as a global spectrum community, we must continue to invest in research and development of technologies that will help us make the most effective and efficient use of spectrum. There are pieces in place – from expanded use of the Spectrum Relocation Fund to the wireless spectrum R&D consortium, to the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Wireless Research Initiative, but I hope that collectively we will be able to do even more.”
Mr. Strickling also said he “would like to see additional focus to more accurately quantify current spectrum demand, usage, and projections of future requirements for both federal and non-federal use. Technologies and business models change rapidly, and to ensure that we keep up with these changes, we must focus on actual needs.” He added that he is “proud of the collaborative effort NTIA has established in the … last eight years, and the strides we have made in creating an enduring … spectrum pipeline that is going to support the evolution to 5G.”
NTIA has said that the government has freed up 245 MHz of spectrum toward the Obama administration’s goal of making an additional 500 MHz available by 2020. Today, Mr. Strickling noted that if the FCC’s incentive auction is successful, that number will top 300 MHz. “Over the years, there has been much discussion about creating incentives for agencies to make more spectrum available for commercial use,” he noted. “The most effective incentive for agencies is to provide them the necessary resources they need to research alternatives to their existing uses of spectrum and then to give them the resources to upgrade to more efficient technologies. A key tool in this regard is the Spectrum Relocation Fund. We’ve worked with the White House and Congress to expand the authorized uses of this fund to enable agencies to conduct research and related activities that promise to increase spectrum efficiency. The fund was first established in 2004 to reimburse federal agencies for the costs associated with repurposing spectrum identified for auction by the FCC. The Congress made important and needed changes to the fund as part of the 2015 Spectrum Pipeline Act to broaden the scope of eligible expenses covered under the fund.
“And these efforts are beginning to bear fruit as federal agencies are developing spectrum pipeline plans for submission to a Technical Panel made up of representatives from NTIA, the FCC and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for their approval,” Mr. Strickling noted. “And prior to the end of this administration, I anticipate the transmittal of plans to Congress that utilize this new authority for the first time, giving federal agencies the opportunity and incentive to explore new bands while protecting mission-critical functions.” He noted that the Federal Aviation Administration will assess if it can consolidate radar functions to make a portion of the 1300-1350 MHz band available for shared use, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants to study shared access of the 1675-1680 MHz band.
“While we believe agencies are making good-faith efforts to meet our spectrum challenges, we know there is still more we can do to make the most effective use of federal spectrum,” he said. “I do believe that the additional flexibility Congress authorized for the Spectrum Relocation Fund was the single most important step that could be taken in the short term, but perhaps the fund could be further strengthened in the future with additional funding and additional flexibilities. For example, by supporting research into allowing more unlicensed use in federal bands.”
But he said that officials “are not convinced that other incentive proposals put forward to date offer approaches that are likely to be successful. These proposals generally rely on market-based incentives, but federal agencies are simply unable to respond to market-based incentives the same way as commercial spectrum users. Agencies are driven by mission requirements, not profit, and they are subject to budget and statutory requirements. And in this mission-based context, agencies do not have the tools to assess economic efficiency. Moreover, for an incentive to be effective, it must influence the appropriate decision-makers at the right time. But we are continuing to explore potential mechanisms that might be effective, and ultimately we hope to make enough progress that we can bring concepts forward and begin a dialogue with federal agencies and other stakeholders.”
During a question-and-answer session after Mr. Strickling’s speech, he was asked about NTIA’s efforts to persuade government agencies to give up spectrum. Mr. Strickling said it is “something of a misconception” that agencies resist in spectrum discussions. Agencies want to make sure their needs are addressed, which NTIA does as well, he said. ”I think they respect sound, neutral, and fact-based analysis, which … is something we have focused on in the last eight years,” he said. In that environment, he added, “I have found the federal agencies to be very cooperative partners in this effort.”
Regarding a question on receiver standards, Mr. Strickling said they are necessary as more disparate services are being placed adjacent to each other. “At some point, we’re going to have to confront this question of making sure that receivers aren’t causing spillover into bands where they don’t have any legal or authorized right to be,” he added. He also was asked if there was “any ray of hope” that agencies will be given market incentives for how they use spectrum.
Mr. Strickling suggested that such incentives could “lead to perverse results” because agencies currently have no ownership in spectrum. “First off, it might lead to hoarding, which doesn’t exist today,” he said. As for placing a market value on agency spectrum, he asked, “How are you going to put a market value on the mission they’re performing?”
During a panel discussion after Mr. Strickling’s remarks, Fred Campbell, director of Tech Knowledge, suggested that a value could be placed on spectrum. “Government does that on a routine basis in virtually all areas not involving spectrum,” he said, citing real property and building leases.
He also suggested that instead of federal agencies receiving authorizations to use frequencies, they could simply lease or buy what they need. “As a matter of economics, I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t work in the abstract,” he said.
Jon Wilkins, chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, also cited the importance of spectrum sharing, noting, “There’s just less and less truly greenfield spectrum.” He also agreed that collaboration between federal agencies has been effective in recent years, noting that it led to the FCC’s spectrum frontiers order on a very fast timeframe. “There are few easy choices” to balance the spectrum demands of industry and agencies so sharing is crucial, said Paige Atkins, NTIA’s associate administrator-Office of Spectrum Management.
Regarding enforcement to address spectrum interference, she said that “we have to move to something that’s much more proactive and automated” that prevents interference in the first place. “I think 5G gives us an amazing opportunity to do things right from the start in many areas,” she added. “It includes looking at enforcement” and sharing mechanisms. – Paul Kirby, email@example.com