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Remarks of Assistant Secretary Strickling at the Spectrum 20/20 Conference

Remarks by Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
Spectrum 20/20 Conference
Ottawa, Canada
April 21, 2010

– As Prepared for Delivery –

Today, I would like to discuss the policies and priorities of the Obama Administration as they relate to radio spectrum and wireless services. In the United States, in Canada, and around the world, we are seeing a virtual explosion of uses for wireless technologies. Mobile broadband use, in particular, has experienced growth in the United States that was unimaginable only a few short years ago. And broadband, particularly expanding access to broadband, is a key element of President Obama's strategy to create durable, sustainable economic growth.

As mobile broadband use spreads, however, it requires more and more radio spectrum. The number of active mobile Internet users has doubled in the past two years to over 40 million users. The growth rate for the adoption of mobile broadband is greater than the growth rate for DSL and cable modem services combined. Downloading videos, participating in video conferences, and using interactive Internet applications utilizes much more bandwidth than mobile voice calls, and we can expect that the projected volumes of mobile data traffic will grow exponentially in the future. In addition, experts expect a huge increase in machine-based wireless broadband communications over the next several years, as “smart” devices take advantage of the ubiquitous connectivity afforded by high-speed, wireless data networks. By 2014, Cisco projects wireless networks in North America will carry some 740 petabytes per month, a greater than 40-fold increase over last year.

Given this apparently insatiable demand, looking for new spectrum for mobile broadband has become a key priority for policymakers. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is an independent regulatory agency, manages private sector and non-federal government spectrum usage.  My agency, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), acts as the President’s principal adviser on telecommunications and information policy and also manages federal government use of spectrum, both military and civilian. The FCC’s National Broadband Plan, released last month, observes that the growth of wireless broadband will be constrained if government does not make spectrum available to enable network expansion and technology upgrades. This will require reallocation of spectrum from both commercial and federal users. It may involve relocation of current uses as well as geographic and dynamic sharing. 

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan makes several recommendations about how to meet the demand for broadband spectrum that the Obama Administration, including the NTIA, and Congress are now reviewing. Overall the National Broadband Plan calls for 500 MHz of spectrum to be made available over the next ten years. Traditionally, calls for more commercial spectrum have led to federal agencies’ being required to relocate operations to free up spectrum for commercial users. But today, it is not so simple.

Spectrum is needed not only for commercial purposes, but also to meet increasing requirements for federal missions, and to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of supplying the nation’s energy grid. Thus, a new feature of the current spectrum discussion is the recognition that we must evaluate both current commercial uses as well as federal uses of spectrum to determine what frequencies might be reallocated or shared.

A first step is identifying possible spectrum bands for reallocation is to understand the current uses of spectrum – both by commercial and government users. To that end, Congress is considering legislation to require a full spectrum inventory by both the NTIA and the FCC. The House just passed such legislation, H.R. 3125, last week and Senate action is expected this term. The inventory envisioned by the House bill would provide greater transparency into who is using both commercial and government spectrum and what they are using it for. The House bill specifically directs that the inventory be used to identify underutilized spectrum and to recommend possible reallocations. The Obama Administration supports the concept of a spectrum inventory and is taking steps to make information on current spectrum use more accessible to the public.

Once candidates for reallocation are identified, the next step is to determine whether and how to make them available for mobile broadband and other uses. For commercial spectrum, one of the FCC’s primary spectrum recommendations focuses on encouraging commercial users to give back spectrum to meet the mobile broadband need through what it calls “incentive auctions.” In an incentive auction, incumbents receive a portion of the proceeds realized by the auction of their spectrum licenses.  Incentive auctions can provide a practical, market-based way for incumbent licensees to relinquish rights in spectrum to other parties or to the FCC, shifting a contentious process to a cooperative one.

The economists tell us that this sharing of proceeds would create appropriate incentives for incumbents to voluntarily cooperate with the FCC in reallocating their licensed spectrum to services that the market values more highly. A market-based mechanism—an auction—determines the value of the spectrum while market-based incentives, such as a share of the revenue received, encourage existing licensees to participate, accelerating the repurposing of spectrum and reducing the cost. Incentive auctions could be especially useful where fragmentation of spectrum licenses makes it difficult for private parties to aggregate spectrum in marketable quantities.

The U.S. Congress would have to pass legislation granting the FCC the authority to conduct incentive auctions, however, and there no doubt will be a thorough debate on this issue. The immediate focus of the FCC is the spectrum held by television broadcasters and, despite what the economists tell us about incentives, this debate will be heated. Broadcasters, having just completed the transition to  digital television, are concerned about further disruptions. They have raised concerns that additional auctions would not be truly voluntary. They recognize that others will claim that these new incentive auctions will  result in a windfall for broadcasters and that they will not receive what they consider as adequate compensation for giving up their licenses. Both sides are understandably worried about such an intricate issue becoming politicized as Congress takes up possible legislation.

Turning to the issue of government spectrum use, any reallocation or repurposing of federal spectrum is an increasingly complex process. Federal spectrum is used to support national security, law enforcement, public safety, science and other applications that must be protected and preserved. Many federal systems such as radar or satellite systems have unique capabilities that cannot be easily replaced with off-the-shelf equipment operating in other bands, which means it may not be possible to relocate these uses or would require many years to do so.  And if relocation is required, we have been working in the U.S. to improve the process for agencies that are required to make these moves. For the last major spectrum auction, Congresses enacted legislation that created a fund to cover the expenses of federal agencies required to relocate to other bands. This process worked reasonably well but we have heard from federal agencies and industry that the process could be improved for future relocations.

A major concern is the need for “start up” funds to ensure that the relocation process goes smoothly. Right now, funds do not become available until after a successful auction. But the agencies tell us that it is important to do the best planning possible before the auction – this allows for a smooth and swift transition and more efficient use of spectrum – which means that we should consider making planning and research funds available early in the relocation process – before the auction.  

Agencies also want to have adequate time allowed for relocation determined by a realistic fact-specific assessment rather than a one-size-fits-all model; they are interested in incentives that would encourage them to vacate spectrum expeditiously, such as allowing improved capabilities, or taking advantage of non-spectrum based solutions or commercial services in appropriate circumstances. At NTIA, we have heard these concerns and are considering whether and when to propose legislation to Congress to make these improvements to the relocation process.

But relying solely on relocation of existing users will not meet the burgeoning demand for spectrum.  Sharing arrangements and new technical solutions will be needed to so that we can stretch our spectrum resources.  For example, in some bands we may have fixed position radar systems that are geographically separated from each other but also segregated in frequency to avoid interference.  This creates a situation similar to the TV broadcast bands where channels are used in some areas and not others.  In order to use these bands more efficiently, we need to explore whether we can allow mobile use in the band, but only in the “white spaces” between existing radar operations.  This approach does not require relocation, but allows us to add a new allocation to the band.

Another possible solution involves learning to use spectrum more efficiently. Studies have shown that some spectrum is not used continuously all the time or across all geographic locations, so finding technical and regulatory mechanisms to utilize the “open spaces” in these bands is one very promising area of technical innovation to satisfy future bandwidth needs. In order to explore these possible dynamic spectrum access solutions, my agency’s research and engineering laboratory, the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences (ITS) in Boulder, Colorado, has launched a Spectrum Sharing Innovation Test Bed where we are evaluating the ability of geo-location and sensing devices to permit sharing of land mobile radio spectrum. In July, ITS is holding a conference on spectrum sharing and I encourage everyone interested in this topic to attend.

Geo-location and sensing are two variations on the same theme of sharing spectrum and better utilizing bands.  A geo-location system is designed with the ability to know which spectrum is not being used in a specific geographic area and make use of that spectrum.  As the system moves from one place to another the spectrum that is available for use will change and the equipment must be able to adjust accordingly.  Of course, this method is highly dependent on access to a database that lays out what spectrum is available in specific locations, such as the proposed FCC database of white spaces in bands used to broadcast digital television signals.  A sensing system, on the other hand, would have the ability to “look before it talks.”  This type of system would sense which spectrum is being used and not being used in the area where it is operating and limit its transmissions to unused spectrum.  This is not always a simple task and many variables are involved in making such a system work.

Dynamic spectrum access systems operate in spectrum where there are incumbent users and that creates a very important issue. Incumbents are understandably concerned about interference that may be caused to their existing and future operations and the burden is on the dynamic spectrum access proponents to show that this technology works in a way that allows for harmonious sharing of spectrum. Through our test bed in Boulder, NTIA is working to move this research forward by showing what dynamic spectrum access technology can and cannot do both in the lab and in the real world. The test bed is proving to be an important opportunity for federal agencies to work cooperatively with industry, researchers and academia to evaluate new technologies for both sensing and geo-location.

In addition to the technical challenges, it is possible that regulatory changes and/or new enforcement mechanisms may be required to implement new spectrum sharing technologies. While our hope is that many of the existing regulations may suffice, any changes necessary will become clearer as the technology is developed.  Since the overall amount of usable spectrum is finite, we at NTIA look forward to being a part of the technical and policy solutions that will enable us to allow additional operations in the spectrum we have.

On the policy front, NTIA not only works with the federal agencies that use spectrum and other interested parties, we also rely on the advice of the Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee.  This committee is made up of spectrum experts from industry, academia, and the public interest community.  It advises my agency on a broad range of issues regarding spectrum policy and on needed reforms to domestic spectrum policies and management in such areas as spectrum efficiency, transparency, sharing, and the use of incentives in the management of spectrum.

Of course, spectrum issues are not restricted by political boundaries and often require significant international cooperation. Before I close, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the day-to-day work that goes on between NTIA and FCC staff in the U.S. and Industry Canada to coordinate authorizations and licenses that have the potential to cause interference across our shared border. This collaboration is the key to enabling interference-free operations for both Canadian and U.S. licensees. In addition to these regular operations, the U.S. and Canada have regularly scheduled meetings to look at broader spectrum issues, such as meetings of the Radio Technical Liaison Committee which brings together regulators from both governments.  Practically, this plays out in outstanding coordination of operations to ensure our secure border, in interference-free commercial operations that work seamlessly across the border, and in support of major events such as the recent Winter Olympics.

I am also looking forward to the next World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), which is a critical forum for international discussion of radio-frequency spectrum, including both satellite and terrestrial issues, and which will reconvene in Geneva, Switzerland in early 2012. This conference takes place every five years and attracts delegates and observers from 191 Member States, as well as from commercial Sector Members and associates.  The U.S. delegation itself normally includes over 150 delegates from both the federal government and commercial sectors.

I would be remiss not to mention the great successes achieved at the last WRC in 2007 when the U.S. partnered with the Canadians and other Member States of the "CITEL" in a team effort.  As a result of this teamwork, we were able to achieve the global harmonization of spectrum for advanced wireless services, the allocation of new spectrum for the development and deployment of flight testing for military and civilian aircraft and to support the modernization of civil aviation communications. 

NTIA is already working with other U.S. agencies to prepare our delegation for discussions in 2012 on several important issues. One of these will be working to ensure the safe operation of unmanned aircraft systems, which are being used with increasing frequency. Unmanned aircraft need to be integrated with the current airspace users in a safe and seamless manner, which will require high-integrity communications links with remote control centers capable of relaying the necessary air traffic control and other flight critical information. We are also preparing to discuss implementing regulations to improve the operation of safety systems for ships and ports. Modifications to Radio Regulations including an exclusive maritime mobile-satellite service allocation would support better tracking of ships and their cargo and better ship-to-shore traffic management.

Without the partnership of the Canadians and other Member States of the CITEL, WRC-07 would not have been such a success, and we look forward to continuing this team effort at WRC-12.

In conclusion, I thank you again for the opportunity to speak here today. There are significant challenges ahead in order to meet expected spectrum demand created by mobile broadband devices, as well as other applications. The Obama Administration is acting to meet these challenges and we look forward to working with you in the years ahead.