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Nearly Halfway to Meeting Spectrum Target

July 8, 2015

Recognizing the growing importance of wireless broadband to the U.S. economy, President Obama five years ago last week set a bold new goal aimed at ensuring that enough spectrum is available to meet the surging demand for wireless connectivity. As the President noted in a June 28, 2010 memorandum, “The world is going wireless, and we must not fall behind.” The President called on NTIA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to make 500 megahertz of federal and non-federal spectrum available for commercial wireless broadband by 2020. As we move into the second half of this ten-year challenge, I wanted to take the opportunity to review the progress we have made and the hurdles still left to surmount. 

Five years out, there is little debate about the accuracy of the President’s prediction – the public’s demand for wireless “smart” devices has continued to grow exponentially along with the need for spectrum to help power this technology. Nearly two-thirds of Americans now own smart phones compared to just 35 percent in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center

Despite this demand, spectrum is a finite resource.  We can’t make more of it, but we can work to manage it more efficiently than we did in the past when demand was not as high. And there are many competing needs for this spectrum.  Federal government agencies also have critical and escalating needs for spectrum to support their important missions and have invested substantial resources on technologies that rely on spectrum.  Moving these systems to new bands in order to make more spectrum available for commercial purposes takes considerable planning and can cost billions of dollars.  That’s the challenge the President tasked us to solve.

I’m happy to report that we are making steady progress toward meeting the President’s 500 megahertz goal. In the last five years, NTIA and the FCC have repurposed 245 megahertz of spectrum that will enable the deployment of licensed and unlicensed broadband technologies.

NTIA and the FCC got to work quickly in October 2010 with the release of a 10-year plan and timetable to meet the President’s spectrum goal along with NTIA’s Fast Track Report, which identified 115 megahertz of spectrum that could be repurposed within five years. Since that time, NTIA has been working with the FCC, federal agencies and industry to help clear technical obstacles that would enable more federal spectrum to be repurposed for exclusive or shared use by wireless providers.

NTIA, working with federal agencies and its Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee, did groundbreaking work to explore viable spectrum sharing arrangements between federal and non-federal uses in both the 1695-1710 MHz and 1755-1780 MHz bands, two of the three bands that were part of the AWS-3 auction (along with 2155-2180 MHz). This auction generated approximately $41 billion in net bids when it ended in January and helped meet important federal government policy objectives.

Meanwhile, in an effort to boost the commercial viability of the 3.5 GHz band, NTIA engineers spearheaded innovative analyses and modeling techniques and collaborated closely with Department of Defense and FCC staff to reduce the size of exclusion zones needed to avoid potential interference with military radar systems already in the band. The FCC relied on this key input in April when it adopted rules establishing a new framework that would make an additional 100 megahertz of spectrum available on a shared basis, combining it with another 50 megahertz to establish the Citizens Broadband Radio Service across the 3550-3700 MHz band.

The AWS-3 and 3.5 GHz efforts have generated 165 megahertz of spectrum for wireless broadband in the past year alone, building on prior FCC actions (see chart). But while we’re on track to achieve the President’s goal, we recognize there is still much work to do. The next opportunity to generate additional spectrum for wireless broadband will come early next year with the FCC’s planned launch of the first-ever spectrum incentive auction. The novel mechanism will afford broadcasters the opportunity to voluntarily relinquish all or some of their spectrum  through a “reverse auction” in exchange for a portion of the proceeds generated by a “forward auction” of the freed-up spectrum to wireless operators. The availability of between 42 MHz and 144 MHz of prime, sub-1 GHz spectrum promises to facilitate significant wireless broadband deployment and enhance competition.  

We will continue to work with the FCC, federal agencies, Congress and industry stakeholders to identify additional spectrum for potential repurposing, including through shared access, while ensuring federal agencies have access to spectrum needed to perform their critical missions. It is a process that only increases in difficulty. However, we are confident that our recent collaborative efforts have laid a foundation for us to build upon and charted a course for producing additional success stories. Stay tuned.

500 Megahertz Goal: Where Do We Stand Today?  

WCS: 2305-2320 and 2345-2360 MHz


30 MHz

H Block: 1915-1920 and 1995-2000 MHz


10 MHz

AWS-4: 2000-2020 and 2180-2200 MHz


40 MHz

AWS-3: 1695-1710, 1755-1780, and 2155-2180 MHz


65 MHz

3550-3650 MHz

100 MHz




245 MHz