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AWS-3 Auction Highlights New Approach to Spectrum Policy

January 29, 2015

By Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and NTIA administrator, and Alexander Macgillivray, U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

The most successful auction of radio spectrum so far came to a close today, drawing nearly $45 billion in bids for 65 megahertz of spectrum. While clearly a ringing financial success, the AWS-3 auction also is an important milestone in the Obama administration’s efforts to meet the President’s goal of making available 500 megahertz of spectrum for wireless broadband by 2020.

The success of the auction, conducted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), was made possible in part by an unprecedented level of collaboration between NTIA, affected federal agencies, wireless industry representatives, the FCC, and Congress.

The auction also represents a paradigm shift in our approach to making spectrum available for commercial wireless providers. In many instances, the bands that were auctioned will require the clearing of incumbent federal users from these bands; while in other instances, nonfederal entrants will be required to share spectrum with incumbent federal agencies indefinitely. As NTIA continues to review spectrum bands for reallocation, spectrum sharing is becoming the new reality. Out of necessity, where it is cost prohibitive, takes too long to relocate incumbent users, or where comparable spectrum is not available to ensure continuity of critical federal government functions, we must move beyond the traditional approach of clearing federal users from spectrum in order to auction it to the private sector for its exclusive use.

NTIA manages the federal government’s use of spectrum. The agency works to make efficient use of this vital resource while ensuring agencies have the airwaves they need to perform critical functions for the American people. This includes a broad range of activities from predicting the weather at the National Weather Service to the Federal Aviation Administration’s work in safeguarding air travel.

As part of the administration’s efforts to make more spectrum available for wireless broadband, NTIA has been working to identify federal bands that could be repurposed for commercial use. In a March 2012 report, NTIA concluded that while it was possible to clear all federal users from the 1755-1780 MHz band as a step in making this spectrum available for commercial use, it would take far too much time and money to relocate all the federal systems operating in the band and, instead, proposed sharing as an option. This view was echoed by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) in a groundbreaking report released later that year, which made recommendations on how to realize the full potential of government-held spectrum by facilitating spectrum sharing.

NTIA was assisted in its work on the AWS-3 bands by the Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee (CSMAC), a diverse group of private sector spectrum experts who advise NTIA. CSMAC, in collaboration with the federal agencies, did groundbreaking work to explore viable spectrum sharing arrangements between federal agencies and private industry in both the 1695-1710 MHz and 1755-1850 MHz bands, which are two of the three bands that were part of the AWS-3 auction.

NTIA also worked with federal agencies to develop transition plans that include detailed actions they will take to either share or relocate from the affected frequencies in the AWS-3 bands.  Information from these transition plans, along with more granular information on how Department of Defense systems may impact certain bands and locations over time, provided an unprecedented level of detail to better inform potential bidders. 

NTIA will work with the federal agencies and industry to meet the timelines outlined in the transition plans. And while the entire transition will take up to 10 years to complete, NTIA and the agencies will look for opportunities to allow for early entry of licensees where possible.

The AWS-3 auction represents an important pivot point as we embrace spectrum sharing as part of a new approach to increased spectrum access.  With a sustained level of cooperation between federal agencies and industry, this approach will produce benefits for both.