Agencies Gather to Talk National Spectrum Policy
WASHINGTON — Spectrum was the talk of the town as dozens of officials from regulatory agencies and companies came together for the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Spectrum Policy Symposium Monday.
Its fifth summit held this year comes days before the Federal Communication Commission’s ability to auction off spectrum is set to sunset at the end of the month.
Attendees gathered to discuss the future of how to best utilize airwaves for government and commercial benefit, all while knowing future innovation hinges on the commission’s ability to make more spectrum available.
“It is noteworthy that Congress has never allowed the FCC’s auction authority to lapse since it was first granted in 1993. Failing to act now, would weaken our leadership and inject significant uncertainty into our 5G future,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Wicker was joined by Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, at the summit to talk about legislative goals for spectrum. Congress is currently under the wire to pass an 18-month extension for the FCC to hold its current authority. However, they also spoke about long-term planning and requiring a nation-wide spectrum plan.
The FCC’s recent memorandum of understanding with the NTIA was a great first step, Luján said. But uses for spectrum — from communications during natural disasters, to space exploration, to national security and everyday internet access — are vast and there needs to be an extensive plan to ensure everyone has airwaves for their wireless communications, the senators agreed.
“When we don’t find solutions, a policy challenge can easily become a national crisis,” Luján said.
That’s why throughout the day people from the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA joined in the conversations.
The Department of Defense’s Chief Information Officer John Sherman said a national plan is essential, because the department is able to reallocate some of its spectrum, but they need a plan to share. The department is unable to vacate certain spectrum bands entirely because of its many radars used for air, land and sea practice and defense, he said.
It would cost “billions of dollars” and take decades to truly vacate any of its bands, but they can share, he said.
Because the economic benefits of the innovation that comes from companies accessing spectrum, like 5G, are also part of the national defense, Sherman said.
Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo agreed that spectrum was key to keeping pace and excelling past some of the country’s foes like China.
“The real answer is running faster in America. There’s offense and defense, and we’ll play our share of defense — but offense, investing in our capacity matters more and spectrum is vital to that,” Raimondo said. “Having necessary available spectrum so we can continue to innovate is absolutely vital to our national security and our ability to compete and dominate certain technologies in the world, which is what we need to do.”
Along with the MOU between the agencies about spectrum sharing, the FCC has also moved this year to further free up spectrum, including when the commission started receiver reform earlier this year.
Previously, the commission has mostly regulated the transmitters, not receivers. However, there’s opportunity to hone how technology uses bands of spectrums when both the transmitters and receivers are regulated, which the bipartisan commission unanimously agreed would likely free up spectrum.
“Repurposing spectrum is not for the faint of heart,” Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said. “The tools we have today are constrained by the law, limited by physics and the relocation of existing users can be challenging. Yet, we forge on because when we look back at the last five year, or better yet 10 … wireless technology is remaking our world.”
She promised to continue pushing for swift change that will keep up with emerging technology’s demands.
“Tradition-bound Washington is not always so quick to change. I know, I’m the first woman to permanently lead the FCC in 87 years. So, I’m going to make up for lost time. In fact, when I took the reins at the agency we made a lighting-fast pivot to focus on mid-band airwaves,” she said, referencing the 5G spectrum auctions that have changed cell phone signals, and are poised to help other technologies. “This is the spectrum that has the mix of coverage and capacity that is essential for the wide-spread deployment of 5G service.”
There’s 5G uses in agriculture, in industrial processes, in transportation and so many other uses, she said.
“If we do this right, our phones will be the least interesting part of our wireless future,” Rosenworcel said.