Fixing the Spectrum Crunch, One Federal Agency at a Time

Brian Fung

The Obama administration today will begin instructing federal agencies to study how they use wireless spectrum, with the aim of making more of it available to the private sector. To spur the process, the White House will also announce today a $100 million investment in wireless sharing and advanced connection technologies. Depending on how much spectrum becomes available as a result, these changes could mean vast improvements for the country’s mobile broadband.

Spectrum is a crucial resource for wireless technology. And it’s growing increasingly scarce, as consumers gobble up more and more data over Wi-Fi and 4G networks—technologies that depend on transmitting information over uncongested airwaves. To make up some of the shortage, the Federal Communications Commission is encouraging TV broadcasters to sell off spectrum they aren’t using next year; the reclaimed spectrum will then be auctioned to cellular service companies. But according to a White House official, there may be additional opportunities in spectrum that’s owned by the government.

The new plan proposes sharing some of the government’s spectrum with the private sector. Parts of it may be sold off to the telcos through the FCC’s spectrum auction, and other bands may be reserved for public or “unlicensed” usage—the kind of usage that gave rise to Wi-Fi. The FEC still needs to work out the details of that breakdown.

"Spectrum is the lifeblood of our nation's wireless economy," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, in a statement. "Calling for incentives for federal users to share or relinquish spectrum [is] critical to identifying more spectrum."

Obama’s memorandum directs all agencies, including the Pentagon, to make regular reports to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the White House official said. The reports will show what kinds of devices are using agency spectrum, and will propose ways of either moving those devices into different bands or otherwise opening up the space for others.

If all goes as planned, that should keep the country on track to giving 98 percent of Americans access to 4G mobile broadband by 2016—a key administration goal.