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Lawmakers and regulators are at odds over the best way to satisfy the public’s growing demand for wireless data. Both have made finding more spectrum to expand mobile broadband networks a priority, but members of Congress are pushing for the immediate sale of a valuable chunk of federal airwaves, while the Obama administration appears more concerned with long-term planning.
Most stakeholders agree on one key point: The growing consumer demand for online video and other mobile applications has created a significant burden for wireless carriers, who claim their networks are straining to meet capacity. Those networks run on slices of spectrum, or airwaves, that the wireless carriers purchase at auction from the Federal Communications Commission for their exclusive use.
The various bands of spectrum have different characteristics depending on their frequency. Bands at lower frequencies are capable of covering much longer distances and going through walls, making them best suited for mobile uses, such as cellphone networks. The spectrum between 400 megahertz and 3 gigahertz is generally considered the most valuable, with all cellphone bands falling within that range.
Much of the spectrum not already sold to wireless companies or broadcasters is held by the government. The band of federal spectrum considered most valuable by the wireless industry is the 1755-1850 MHz band, more specifically the lower 25 MHz from 1755 to 1780. That band is used for cellular networks in some other countries and is technically appealing to the wireless industry for a host of reasons.
According to a report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 19 U.S. government agencies currently deploy a wide variety of communications and surveillance tools in the 1755-1850 MHz band. Those include law enforcement surveillance tools, satellites dishes, drones, tactical radios and a host of other military uses.
The difficulty and cost of moving those federal users is uncertain and varies greatly depending on the use. Satellites can remain in the air for 20 years to 25 years, while other equipment potentially could be shifted to different bands of spectrum or replaced in a shorter time frame. The NTIA’s report estimates that it would take a decade and at least $18 billion to clear all federal users from the 1755-1850 band so it could be auctioned off.
“The hard truth is that there might be government users in that space that you just might not be able to move out for a while,” a Senate Democratic aide said. “They might need to be there for the next 10 to 15 years. That’s just the reality.”