Defense in tug-of-war over wireless spectrum

Defense in tug-of-war over wireless spectrum

BY DAWN S. ONLEY | GCN STAFF

For decades the Defense Department has used a prime area of radio frequency to run more than 100 of its sophisticated electronic systems.

But industry is making a play for more bandwidth, citing the growing demand incurred by wireless technologies.

Defense officials argue that their spectrum use should remain untouched for the safety and preservation of critical warfighting missions. Meanwhile, DOD too has begun to expand its use of wireless applications.

Communications companies counter that they desperately need more spectrum to sell wireless devices and keep up with consumer demand. Industry representatives said DOD can move now from the 1,755-MHz through 1,850-MHz portion of the spectrum or be forced to move later.

Moving is not optional, they said; it is inevitable.

Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, said there is a 'growing encroachment of [DOD] radio frequency spectrum' that will diminish the military's ability to train and fight.


Sen. James M. Inhofe
Inhofe said a transfer of spectrum from military to civilian use 'may force the military to re-engineer or dumb-down its equipment.'

The debate is swirling around the corridors of the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. Some observers consider spectrum management the top issue facing Defense this year.

'Nothing is more important right now than spectrum allocation issues in DOD,' said Tony Valletta, vice president and director of command, control and communications for SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va. 'Nothing is going to happen in wireless if the spectrum issue is not resolved.'

That may take time and depends how willing DOD brass is to fight for the department's spectrum allocation, which many industry officials view as 'beachfront property,' Navy Rear Adm. Robert Nutwell said.

'Our dependence on spectrum is growing because our operation is becoming increasingly mobile,' said Nutwell, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and space.

Band on the run

Defense uses the spectrum to control more than 120 satellites with stations around the world. The department also uses it for tactical radio relay, precision weapons guidance and air combat training systems.

Two federal agencies that have regulatory power over spectrum use'the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a division of the Commerce Department, and the Federal Communications Commission'are investigating the issue. NTIA has released a report that outlines three options. Two deal with sharing the band, and the third involves DOD migrating to a comparable band.

In its own report, DOD found NTIA's options either unfeasible or feasible only if the department moves to a comparable band of frequency and receives billions of dollars in compensation. The report said removing military systems from the band would cost up to $4.3 billion and would take years to accomplish'through 2010 for ground and shipboard systems and through 2017 for all satellite control.

The 1,755-MHz to 1,850-MHz band was one of several options for future commercial use identified last June at the 2000 World Radio Conference in Turkey. But DOD officials contend that losing access to the band would affect key military satellite systems, such as the Global Positioning System and the Defense Support Program, an early-warning communications system.

'We need to preserve DOD's mission capabilities,' Nutwell said. 'We feel there are some risks to DOD for vacating this band: the ability to meet future requirements. DOD should not be required to relocate. Why can't [spectrum] be found on the commercial side of the world?'


Adm. Robert Nutwell
Industry's answer is that spectrum is a limited commodity, and with 115 million cellular telephone users in the United States alone and 2,500 more added every hour, spectrum is quickly running out, said Steve Berry, senior vice president for government affairs with the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association in Washington. The association represents major wireless carriers, including AT&T Corp.; Nokia Americas of Irving, Texas; Verizon Communications Inc. of New York; and VoiceStream Wireless Corp. of Bellevue, Wash.

Berry said, compared to European countries, the United States has an extremely low spectrum allocation'a span of 189 MHz'for wireless providers. France has 365 MHz and Germany 300 MHz.

'The rest of the world has already recognized this need,' Berry said, and has begun reallocating the 1,755-MHz to 1,850-MHz band to manufacturers and vendors.

'We believe that DOD can migrate out of its current spectrum uses in 1,755-1,850, and they can do so while maintaining capabilities and enhancing their capabilities through revenue generated from the auction of that spectrum,' he said. 'We understand DOD has concerns and reservations about any move. We also get the impression that resources are a key factor in DOD's ability to plan for future moves.'

But it's only a matter of time before DOD will be forced to move, Berry said, because the band the department occupies is being used commercially by the rest of the world. In a war on foreign soil, DOD could not count on the security of its spectrum, he said.

'DOD is going to have to move essentially anyway,' Berry said. 'Whether DOD wants it or not, the rest of the world has already made decisions that will affect that.'

Nutwell disagreed. He said he views the situation as industry's way of trying to harmonize third-generation operations'the latest in high-speed wireless technologies'around the world, so the United States won't be left in the dust. But he added that 'harmonizing is not happening' and that most nations haven't made any decisions yet about the spectrum in question.

In essence, Defense leaders said that even though several countries have indicated that they are considering the spectrum, there has been no announcement that they will actually use it. 'It's very unusual for a commercial [company] to look at government spectrum to meet their needs,' Nutwell said. 'They feel like it's an opportunity to harmonize 3G operations around the world.'

There are other alternatives, Nutwell said, adding that analog television spectrum could be reallocated to suit commercial and mobile uses. 'It would be a huge effort for us to move,' he said. 'Some of the systems in there now are over 20 years old.'

Holding pattern

A decision remains on hold. A memorandum signed last year by President Clinton calls for FCC to complete rule-making for spectrum reallocation by July 30 and for an auction for licensing by Sept. 30, 2002. In its January notice about the proposed rule, FCC sought public comment on reallocating portions of the 1,755-MHz through 1,850-MHz band for nongovernmental use.

But Rodney Small, a staff member in the commission's Office of Engineering and Technology, said in all likelihood the deadline for a final rule would be extended.

'There is some talk now about doing a further notice of proposed rule-making,' Small said. 'The odds for a final decision by July 30 are pretty much nil. We're probably shooting for the fall time frame.'

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