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Bringing Spectrum Sharing to a "Model City"

April 17, 2015 by

As we explore a bold new world of sharing spectrum across government and commercial users, NTIA is continuing the conversation about how to make this vision a reality.

NTIA and the Federal Communications this week held a two-day workshop focused on the Model City initiative, which would establish a pilot program in a major U.S. city or cities that will serve as a test bed to evaluate and demonstrate spectrum-sharing technology in a real-world urban environment. The project would be a public-private partnership launched with the support of NTIA, which manages federal uses of wireless spectrum, and the FCC, which regulates commercial use of the airwaves.

It has been nearly three years since the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a groundbreaking report laying out a bold new vision to make the most efficient use of government-held wireless spectrum and realize its full potential to spur economic growth, drive innovation and fuel the mobile broadband revolution.

The nut of the report was this: commercial demand for spectrum is exploding even as federal agencies require more spectrum for mission-critical applications like national defense and law enforcement. So we need to find a new way to manage this precious and finite resource. The traditional approach of clearing spectrum used by government agencies and auctioning it off for exclusive private-sector use, the PCAST report warned, is often too costly, too time-consuming and too disruptive to federal missions. The future lies in sharing spectrum.

Today, this is an important priority of the Obama Administration, which released a Presidential Memorandum in June of 2013 calling on NTIA and the FCC to promote increased sharing of spectrum. Indeed, sharing will be critical to meeting the Administration goal of freeing up 500 megahertz of spectrum for licensed and unlicensed wireless broadband services by 2020.

But how do we realize the PCAST vision of creating what it called “the spectrum equivalent of wide multi-lane superhighways, where the lanes are continuously shared by many cars, trucks and other vehicles”? That is the purpose of the Model City concept, which came out of the 2012 PCAST report.

The initiative will supplement cutting-edge R&D taking place at rural test sites and federal, academic and private-sector labs across the country. Those facilities are evaluating advanced technology such as smart radios that can dynamically sense which frequencies are available for use in real time, and developing vital tools such as spectrum access databases that track in real time who is using which bands to avoid interference with protected incumbents. The new Center for Advanced Communications in Boulder, a partnership between NTIA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is serving as a clearinghouse for those facilities.

The Model City initiative will bring this exciting technology out of the labs and remote testing environments to prove its functionality and resiliency in the field with a broad cross-section of users, from local emergency responders to commercial wireless subscribers to federal officials.

It will demonstrate how the new technology will perform in an actual metropolitan setting with all of its related challenges, such as urban canyons formed by tall buildings that impede propagation of wireless signals and dense populations that place serious constraints on network capacity. The Model City (or cities) will help us understand and define harmful interference, measure spectrum usage efficiencies and study propagation characteristics and waveforms. It will also serve as an urban “sandbox” to develop critical enforcement policies to ensure everyone plays by the rules.

In short, the project will provide an opportunity to showcase spectrum sharing as a viable and scalable option in a real-world setting, across any number of frequency bands, applications and end users. This is vital to building confidence in the concept and generating the necessary buy-in among important stakeholders.

This week’s workshop brought together stakeholders who will be key players in the Model City initiative, which is envisioned as a public-private partnership encompassing federal, state and local governments, wireless carriers and network equipment makers, the technical community and academics.

Cities, in particular, will be critical partners in this effort. They can streamline permitting procedures for network construction and provide access to public rights of way and city-owned conduits, towers, rooftops and utility poles. They can offer access to municipal fiber networks to deliver backhaul capacity, as well as existing city wireless systems. And of course, cities can supply municipal users, including first responders who rely on radio communications.

In turn, participating cities have a lot to gain. They will get exposure to cutting-edge wireless technology that can support all sorts of so-called “smart city” applications to efficiently manage energy consumption, keep traffic moving smoothly and monitor everything from parking meters to water usage. They will also be able to use the wireless networks to provide free Internet access in parks, libraries and other public spaces.

Perhaps most compelling, cities can look to leverage their experience with the Model City project to attract investment and market themselves to potential employers and businesses as a hub of innovation. After all, wireless technologies are increasingly the infrastructure of the new economy.