This group says the federal government, for all the auctions, is still a spectrum hog

A technology trade association is urging Congress to update the law that lets the [Federal Communications Commission (FCC)] auction off radio spectrum held by the government. In fact, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation basically said the government continues to hog much spectrum that could be more efficiently used by industry. For details,  Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Joe Kane, ITIF’s Director of broadband and spectrum policy, Joe Kane.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin

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A technology trade association is urging Congress to update the law that lets the [Federal Communications Commission (FCC)] auction off radio spectrum held by the government. In fact, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation basically said the government continues to hog much spectrum that could be more efficiently used by industry. For details,  Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Joe Kane, ITIF’s Director of broadband and spectrum policy, Joe Kane.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin
It seems like we’ve been talking about spectrum for 25 years now.

Joe Kane
Yeah, it’s a it’s a big topic. And there’s always need for more, so the economy is only getting more and more wireless. And as that happens, we’re gonna see more and more need for spectrum. And so, the need to use what we have efficiently and find more wherever we can, is always ongoing.

Tom Temin
Is the auction mechanism, what’s needed more of? Or what has to happen, do you think, to get more spectrum to where it’s commercially best used?

Joe Kane
Yeah, so auctions are important. And it is important that we renew the FCC’s authority to auction spectrum. But right now, the bulk of the most important spectrum, is held by the federal government. And the federal government is not under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission. And so we need some, sort of, mechanism to incentivize those federal agencies, who have really important missions that they have to accomplish the spectrum, but also maybe, don’t have the incentive to use it as efficiently as possible, to maybe be better stewards of the spectrum and give up some where they can.

Tom Temin
And where is the spectrum that the government is using? And what are some typical ways they’re using it? Is it all Defense Department or do some of the others have it, also?

Joe Kane
The Defense Department has the bulk of it, I think. Sort of think of the obvious things the Defense Department will be using it for, radars is a very common one. But we also have things like, weather satellites that are run by [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)] and GPS and to some extent, has a governmental side to it. So yeah, it’s lots of different things, also could just communications networks, the kinds of things that you would have your cell phone running on. The Department of Defense needs those too. The most important spectrum right now, both, for the government and for commercial use, is in the mid-band, which is, generally, around the three to seven gigahertz.

Tom Temin
Didn’t they recently take away seven gigahertz from wireless microphones?

Joe Kane
There’s lots of stuff around the edges there. But I think the big swaths of spectrum that we would need to get, you need wide channels to have the amount of throughput that we’re seeing, with services like 5g, and the coming things like, AR and VR are going to need a lot of bandwidth. And so you need, sort of, big, clear swaths of spectrum for them to operate in.

Tom Temin
Yes, God forbid, you couldn’t dance in spectral form on a meta Facebook thing or something. We certainly need that for, national whatever. How much do you feel, say, there’s three to seven, just for sake of argument, that’s range of four gigahertz in there. How much can the government, do you feel, actually, give up and still be able to meet national security and other missions?

Joe Kane
If we’re just looking at it now, there’s a good argument from a lot of agencies, the look, we need what we have. But there’s also, things that we could do to make the government use their spectrum more efficiently. And therefore, they would be more excess capacity that there is now. So if you just look at it, in a static sense, there’s less, but as we’re moving in the long run, there are things that the government could do that would make their receivers, their spectrum work better for them. They could accomplish their missions better and also have spectrum leftover for commercial use.

Tom Temin
So technical things, like wave division, multiplexing, that’s used in fiber, that kind of thing you’re talking about?

Joe Kane
Yeah, that kind of thing. And I think also, just better filtering of receivers, a lot of problems that we’ve seen is, when you have devices in the field that are listening to a really wide range of frequencies, more than they have to, that you can, sort of, clamp that down and say, let’s listen only to the frequencies that we really need. And therefore, you can fit more services in on the edges of those bands.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking to Joe Kane, the ITIF’s director of Broadband and Spectrum policy. So what are your recommendations then, for using it more efficiently and incentivizing agencies to use it more efficiently? Because, otherwise, they can just keep doing what they’re doing. And why bother?

Joe Kane
Yeah, the incentives are really the hardest part. Because, unlike for a commercial wireless operator, if you have spectrum that you’ve paid a lot of money for, you really need to use it efficiently or otherwise, you’re gonna go out of business. But for the government, they don’t really have that. So, we have this thing called, the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act, that created a Spectrum Relocation Fund, which is supposed to, essentially, pay the costs of federal users, when they move out of a band and allow commercial use there. But there’s a law in that legislation that says, that you can only use that money for equipment of a comparable capability. And so we, sort of, end up replacing old bad equipment, with the same old bad equipment, instead of saying, like, oh, we’re going to upgrade and put in devices that use spectrum, more efficiently. And so, I think a legislative fix there would be very helpful in saying, no, we’re going to prioritize, more efficient, spectrum using devices in the federal government and also, give guidance to OMB. So the Office of Management and Budget is charged, sort of, overseeing how this act works. And they have been, kind of, stingy with it, in saying, that we aren’t going to allow the funds to be used for a lot of different kinds of things, that couldn’t make spectrum more efficient in the long run.

Tom Temin
Yeah, to use spectrum, more efficiently, equipment has to be upgraded. So there’s an acquisition real cost here, to replace radios and transmission equipment?

Joe Kane
Yeah, definitely. And that is a big barrier to anything, is that all this stuff costs money. But I think, in the long run, the real costs come from, having not enough spectrum available or we end up with interference disputes. We look at what’s happening now, or what happened last year with the airplanes and cell phones having some conflicts with each other. And there’s billions of dollars on the line there, that if we had spent $26 million upfront, we could have saved a whole lot of headache and a whole lot of money down the road. And so having that new equipment in place early, is really important to saving money in the long run.

Tom Temin
Yeah, I heard my own station on my keyboard amp the other day, because I had a, badly shielded, cable plugged in. And I thought, boy, this is really strange. This is not a radio, it’s a keyboard amp. But somehow, it was picking up Federal News Network. I said, I hope it happens all over the place. But what about the international aspects of this? And you mentioned radar and DoD, which operates worldwide, satellites operate worldwide. We just had a little balloon come over from China, that was, presumably, using spectrum to get whatever it was purloining over to China. I mean, five megahertz is five megahertz, wherever on the earth you are. Is that part of the equation?

Joe Kane
I think it is. It’s important to have international harmonization, in the spectrum that you’re using, just because it’s helpful for device manufacturers, to not have to make a different device for every part of the world. And I think there’s a lot of benefits to be gained from that. But I also think the international dimension, also emphasizes the importance of making your equipment resilient, because the Department of Defense isn’t always going to be operating in a place, where the FCC can come in and kick off the people who are operating in the wrong channel. Sometimes, there are going to be people, intentionally, interfering with you. And so a device that is more resilient to the bad guys, also is going to free up more space for the good guys.

Tom Temin
And by the way, does 5G operate in this mid-band?

Joe Kane
It does, yes. So there’s been some allocations for 5G in mid-band already, I think there is, significant, need for more. That’s right now, the lower three gigahertz band, is one of the main places we’re looking. It’s currently used by, federal radar, Department of Defense Radar. And so, trying to figure out a way to use that to keep the radar working, maybe in a smaller range of frequencies, or maybe on a shared basis with commercial users, is something that’s very much talked about right now.

Tom Temin
And one of your recommendations says, Congress should require administrative pricing for spectrum consumed by federal agencies. Who do you pay, if the spectrum is in the government’s hands?

Joe Kane
Yeah, so this is an idea that gets kicked around a lot. But I think it is, to some level, become, sort of, an academic exercise, where you have the government paying itself for its own spectrum. But I do think it is useful, to put numbers on a piece of paper and say, look, this is how much we’re using. This is how much it would go, we think might go for a private market and say, wow, this is, maybe like, DoD, you’re using way more resources than we thought you were, just because we weren’t accounting for the numbers properly. And so, we have [General Services Administration (GSA)] out there, trying to buy buildings and things for the federal government. And we keep track of those prices and say, look, this is a real cost. These resources could be used for other things in the economy. And we want to keep track of what that is.

Tom Temin
And just to get back to the question of what the industrial uses might be. Are there important industrial requirements for this area of spectrum besides, virtual reality and nonsense like that on Facebook?

Joe Kane
Yeah. So I think one of the biggest ones, right now, is industrial internet of things networks. So you can have a private network operating within your factory, that can make the factory itself a lot more efficient, reduced maintenance times and reduced power consumption and things like that. That is important for everything, from just helping a company save on its bottom line, but also things like climate change, if you don’t have to use as much energy. But I also think, we’re just consuming more and more data, just in a, sort of, broadband connectivity sense. We have, now, people using 5G connections, just as their home broadband. And if we want more of that, just from a competitive standpoint, we’re going to need a lot more spectrum to support it.

Tom Temin
Right. A lot of industry sectors say that, Internet of Things is a major application, when they get into artificial intelligence, using Internet of Things data and transmission of that data. And so that would argue for a stronger 5G presence, because, right now, 5G is only, partially, fulfilling its potential.

Joe Kane
Yeah, I think we still, definitely, have a long way to go with 5G. We’re still, sort of, in the early days of it. But I think, that’s it’s always the case with new technologies, that you put it out there and you don’t really know what people are going to do with it. Like with 4G, we didn’t really know what the app economy was going to look like when it first rolled out. But here we are, where everything is now on our cell phones, as an app.

 

 

 

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