The PCAST Report And The Inconvenient Truth About Federal Spectrum.


We have all kinds of reality-challenged folks in Washington. We got those who believe that we need to go back to the gold-standard and abolish the Federal Reserve. We got those who think vaccinations cause learning autism. To this we can now add “the folks who think we can keep finding federal spectrum to auction forever.”

Case in point, the reaction by some to last week’s report on the future Federal spectrum management by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). The PCAST Report fond that we won’t clear big chunks of spectrum for auction anytime soon. We therefore ought to consider other ways that will make spectrum available for commercial use and simultaneously make federal spectrum users more efficient. This means moving from a world that treats exclusive federal allocations (occassionally cleared for exclusive commercial applications) as the norm to a world that treats sharing federal spectrum with commercial users as the norm.

You would think the spectrum-starved commercial wireless industry would welcome the chance to get access to Federal spectrum, even on a non-exclusive basis, with cheers and open arms. Sadly, to the collection of incumbents and spectrum old guard still living in the 1990s, this admission is anything from a “white flag of surrender” to yet-another-sinister-conspiracy by Google, Microsoft and other socialists within the Obama Administration to undermine the licensed carrier way of life.

As some of us have argued for some time, we face a basic reality that runs up against clearing more spectrum that has nothing to with the ideological “property v. commons” fights that took up so much time ten years ago when Wi-Fi and mesh demonstrated the value of unlicensed “shared” spectrum. The primary holders of fed spectrum at this point are agencies like the Department of Defense (DoD), or involve satellite functions that cannot easily be replaced. The demand on the fed side for spectrum has grown at the same pace as on the commercial side, and proposals that the FBI contract with carriers for two-data communication or that DoD pay “spectrum fees” for defense radar are not helpful. Moving fed functions around to clear blocks of spectrum big enough to be useful – especially in the frequency ranges commercial operators need – is technically difficult, extremely expensive, and not gonna happen anytime soon

The PCAST Report notes all this and comes to a lot of the same conclusions we at PK came to a couple of years ago. Instead of trying to beat the federal users into submission, we ought to leverage technology that allows devices to share spectrum with federal users based on who is actually using what frequency bands (and for what purpose) in any given location. At the same time, we ought to take steps to make federal users more spectrum efficient. These include moving federal users to dynamic assignment rather than locking them permanently into a particular set of frequencies, greater involvement by the Federal Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to promote greater efficiency across all agencies, permitting short-term licensing and leasing to enhance revenue, and artificial “spectrum dollars” given to agencies for becoming more spectrum efficient that would count against purely federal book-keeping charges – such as the rent GSA charges federal agencies for using federal office space.

None of this cuts against using exclusive licenses where it makes sense and when you can get more clear spectrum to auction. In fact, many of the suggestions – such as enhancing overall federal efficiency by moving feds to dynamic spectrum assignments rather than fixed license-like assignements – will ultimately make it easier to clear bands for auction in the future. So why the chorus of complaints from the likes of AT&T and CTIA, claiming that the PCAST Report “ignores the benefits of exclusive use licenses”? Unfortunately, those wedded to the idea that somewhere there exists a boatload of federal spectrum that we could clear and auction in big blocks perfect for LTE if we just look hard enough regard any suggestion that we might need to come up with a Plan B as an assault on Our Way of Life. They insist a federal spectrum pot of gold must be there because it has to be there. If PCAST, or NTIA or the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) or anyone else can’t find more federal spectrum to auction, it must mean they aren’t looking hard enough or don’t care enough or don’t love licensed enough.

But the reality is that, as the PCAST Report found, non-exclusive sharing – both between federal users and commercial users and between different commercial users -- is going to have to move from being the exception to becoming the norm. That’s not a failure to recognize the value of exclusive licenses. It’s a recognition that we don’t have the capacity to clear big blocks of spectrum on a national basis without spending far more money that we could possibly raise through such an auction, combined with a recognition that continuing exclusive allocations to federal users doesn't make economic sense when we can make spectrum available to commercial users without interfering with federal uses. To keep exclusive licensing as "the norm" means running auctions at a loss, while locking commercial users out of "exclusive" federal spectrum. Does anyone not ideologically or economically invested in the current "norm" think this makes sense?

Hardcore spectrum warriors unwilling to adapt cannot change reality. Unfortunately, in Washington DC, well-funded deniers of reality have an amazing capacity to block good policy that contradicts their worldview. Happily, the demand for new wireless capacity continues to produce an ever growing number of industry participants – such as the cable operators making a heavy investment in Wi-Fi and carriers such as Sprint using shared spectrum to supplement their licensed spectrum -- who don’t have time for ideological battles. While I am not so naïve that I believe that being right is enough, it helps especially when there is money to be made by doing the right thing. In the end, we will have more spectrum sharing because we don’t have a reality-based alternative. But if we want to save ourselves a lot of endless delay, we will need to force the spectrum old guard to accept some inconvenient truths.

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