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Lawmakers Push for Sale of Government Airwaves

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Matsui, above, and then-Rep. Cliff Stearns offered a bill last year directing the government to auction off the 1755-1780 MHz band, but it didn’t become law. However, Congress has already authorized the sale of the spectrum as needed, so no law is needed.

But the prospect of waiting a decade is unacceptable to the wireless industry, which believes that next year’s spectrum auction — in which airwaves relinquished by television broadcasters will be sold to wireless carriers — is unlikely to attract enough broadcaster participation to satisfy its appetite. Several policymakers agree, as evidenced by the FCC’s announcement earlier this year that it will seek to auction the 1755-1780 MHz block at next year’s auction.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., and then-Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., offered a bill last year directing the government to auction off the 1755-1780 block. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, offered a similar amendment to last year’s defense authorization bill. Neither provision became law, but legislation isn’t necessary; Congress has already authorized the FCC to sell that spectrum as needed.

“Our nation is facing a looming spectrum crunch,” Matsui said. “In the short term, I believe pairing the 1755-1780 band with the 2155-2180 MHz band makes sense not just for revenue purposes but also for spurring innovation and consumer demand in our ever-growing digital economy.”

Passing legislation on the issue would provide federal agencies with a deadline as well as some form of carrot or stick to encourage government users to vacate the spectrum as expeditiously as possible. Supporters of auctioning the 1755-1780 MHz band argue that the NTIA’s cost estimate is inflated and that more detailed work and research is needed to determine the actual costs.

“All of this is completely doable under existing law,” the Senate Democratic aide said. “There’s a belief amongst some in commercial industry that, absent legislative mandate, government agencies won’t [vacate the spectrum]. But the president is firmly behind trying to make this happen and pushing it.”

Government users counter that their networks are programmed to run across the entire 95 MHz from 1755 to 1850, so depriving them of the lower 25 MHz would still require the replacement or reconfiguration of most equipment. The Obama administration has instead proposed an expanded regime of spectrum sharing between government and private industry, based largely on the way federal agencies currently use spectrum.

Unlike private companies, federal users never actually hold their own spectrum, they are instead given permission to use certain frequencies after coordinating with the NTIA. That means the various government networks must coexist in the same or adjacent bands without interference. Administration officials have suggested that a similar setup involving multiple commercial carriers may be more efficient than licensing the spectrum to one company for exclusive use.

Both the Pentagon and wireless industry have balked in the past at the notion of sharing airwaves, with the former concerned about potential interference with critical systems and the latter nervous about building its networks on spectrum it doesn’t own. Both sides view sharing as a fallback option, in contrast to the administration’s apparent preference for the approach.

The four major wireless carriers recently began preliminary testing with the Pentagon on potential sharing solutions, with particular focus on finding a way for commercial carriers to coexist in the 1755-1780 MHz band with government satellites. Allowing satellites to continue operating in the band while clearing other government users is expected to save as much as $3 billion from the relocation costs.

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