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Spectrum Review Poses Risks

By | June 28, 2004

      The politically weak satellite industry faces a delicate balancing act in responding effectively to spectrum reform recommendations released last Thursday by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

      The industry needs to avoid becoming too defensive but it also must be engaged in the process unfolding in Washington, D.C., to help ensure its interests and its users are given legitimate consideration in the process. The NTIA touched off the tightrope walk for the industry by issuing two reports last Thursday that propose better ways to manage the nation’s crowded airwaves. One recommendation would create an innovation testbed for increased sharing between federal and non-federal spectrum users. Key goals are to foster economic growth; to help ensure U.S. national and homeland security; to maintain the country’s global leadership in communications technology development and services; and to satisfy other vital U.S. needs in such areas as public safety, scientific research, federal transportation infrastructure and law enforcement.

      As meritorious as those objectives may sound to administrative officials, spectrum users from a wide range of technologies could have their plans disrupted by any spectrum re- allocation. The idea of creating a new spectrum policy is not going away anytime soon, because President Bush himself is driving the effort.

      The president last year challenged the Commerce Department and the other federal agencies to develop U.S. spectrum policy for the 21st century, said Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce Michael Gallagher. Specifically, the president signed an executive memorandum during June 2003 that created an initiative to improve spectrum management policies and procedures.

      Last Thursday’s reports are intended to answer that challenge, offering a comprehensive set of recommendations to help ensure spectrum policies keep pace with “powerful new technologies” that benefit and protect Americans, Gallagher said. One report offers recommendations involving the federal government’s spectrum use, while the other report provides recommendations for spectrum use by state and local governments as well as by the private sector.

      Broadband Boost

      The initiative could, finally, aid in the rollout of U.S. broadband services. Indeed, the president recently announced that all Americans should have universal, affordable access to broadband technology by 2007.

      Wireless, satellite and other technologies potentially could benefit if the amount of spectrum available for such commercial uses would increase high-speed Internet access. Examples of technologies that could be helped the most are third generation (3G) wireless; wireless fidelity (WiFi) and ultra-wideband (UWB).

      “I think the challenge for the satellite industry is not to view this as a threat, but as an opportunity,” said Maury Mechanick, counsel in the Washington office of the White & Case law firm. “The Administration and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are under a lot of pressure to maximize the utilization of spectrum in the most efficient way possible. The testbed initiative and the other recommendations in the spectrum policy are all facets of that effort.”

      If the industry sees the review of spectrum use as a threat and goes into an “ultra-defensive mode,” at the end of the day, its own interests would be hurt, said Mechanick, who represents satellite companies in his law practice. The industry really needs to view this situation as an opportunity to take advantage of additional spectrum opportunities or to work cooperatively with new service providers. In addition, new service providers using other technologies may need to interconnect their services with existing or future satellite networks, Mechanick said.

      Tim Logue, a consultant in the Washington office of the Coudert Brothers law firm, said the NTIA represents government users of spectrum and provides an “important voice” in spectrum planning. “For the satellite industry, however, as an incumbent user which has recently been losing ground to other services, any reform effort requires active engagement,” Logue said. “Otherwise, an industry can find itself losing further ground to sectors like mobile and fixed terrestrial wireless that are currently in favor.”

      24 Recommendations

      Among the 24 recommendations included in the NTIA reports is the establishment of a spectrum testbed for innovative new technologies to allow increased sharing between federal and non-federal users. The FCC and the NTIA each would identify approximately 10 megahertz of spectrum to be made available for this program. The intent is to drive future innovation and the expansion of sharing to help government and commercial users, Gallagher said. A spectrum-sharing testbed would require the NTIA and the FCC to establish a pilot program between federal and non-federal government users for sharing equal bands of spectrum within the next two years.

      Another recommendation aimed at identifying and analyzing new technologies calls for the two agencies to work with public and private research-and-development laboratories to improve ways to assess emerging technologies and enhanced services.

      A further recommendation that could be good for satellite interests is to increase private-sector input on policy issues. The NTIA will establish a spectrum-management advisory committee to provide top-level input to formulate positions and plans on such difficult policy issues as the transition to digital television, universal and affordable broadband access, and public-safety interoperability.

      In an effort to modernize spectrum management, another recommendation would have the NTIA and the FCC coordinate the creation of a National Strategic Spectrum Plan and Long- range Spectrum Planning. As part of that effort, federal government spectrum users would provide a biennial strategic plan to be combined into the National Strategic Plan. State, regional and local government agencies would establish similar long-range plans.

      Incentives Offered

      A unique recommendation that contains a carrot for the private sector would establish economic and efficiency incentives in the form of spectrum rights. Again, the NTIA and the FCC would team to examine the possibility of modifying spectrum rights to encourage the deployment of spectrally efficient technologies. Yet another recommendation is to expand secondary market incentives across various services.

      In addition, the report called for Congress to pass legislation to provide the FCC with permanent authority to conduct spectrum auctions for licenses, to collect fees for spectrum use, and to create a spectrum- relocation fund to streamline reimbursement of government spectrum users and to facilitate their relocation to comparable spectrum.

      Protecting Critical Services

      Another section of the NTIA’s report focused on ensuring the protection of critical government spectrum users and services. This thrust would involve coordination among the Department of Homeland Security; the NTIA; the FCC; regional, state and local governments; and the private sector to develop a comprehensive plan addressing public-safety spectrum issues. Such issues would include fragmentation, shortage, interference, and security. The NTIA also would examine the feasibility of sharing spectrum among public-safety services and of possibly implementing one or more demonstration programs to test the sharing of spectrum and infrastructure among public-safety organizations.

      Terrorist threats would be addressed with one recommendation emphasizing the interoperability and continuity of government communications. The Department of Homeland Security, NTIA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) would coordinate with appropriate federal agencies to develop and implement a plan to address the spectrum needs of federal, state and local communication interoperability and continuity of government operations in light of terrorist threats. Other concerns to be addressed would be emergencies and day-to-day operations.

      The NTIA also was singled out in the recommendations to establish a policy-and-plans steering group, comprised of federal government officials, to help resolve spectrum-policy disputes.

      –Paul Dykewicz

      (Clyde Ensslin, NTIA, 202-482-7002; Tim Logue, Coudert Brothers, 202/736-1816; Maury Mechanick, White & Case, 202/626-3635)

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