US official: Gov't spectrum holdings are limited

The NTIA's administrator tells lawmakers that there isn't a lot of inefficiently used spectrum in government hands

The U.S. government doesn't have a huge swath of underused wireless spectrum to auction to mobile carriers, although agencies are working to identify spectrum bands that can be sold, an official said Wednesday.

Several lawmakers, pointing to a predicted spectrum shortage for mobile broadband providers, called for the U.S. National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) to move ahead quicker with efforts to identity government spectrum that could be converted to commercial use.

But Lawrence Strickling, NTIA's administrator, disputed lawmaker assertions that some federal agencies are inefficiently using their spectrum.

"Compared to commercial services, federal agencies do not have a lot of spectrum in the prime bands," Strickling told the communications subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.

Federal agencies have exclusive use of only 18 percent of the "prime" spectrum between 225MHz and 3.7GHz, while commercial and other users, have exclusive control of about 30 percent, Strickling said. The remaining spectrum is shared between federal agencies and other users, he said.

Some lawmakers called on the NTIA and other agencies to move faster to identify spectrum that can be sold to commercial carriers. Carriers are facing a spectrum crunch, said Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican. Agencies "have got to get with the program," she said.

Some agencies seem unwilling to give up their spectrum, she added. Spectrum managers at some agencies are "kicking the can down the road," she said.

Strickling agreed that some agencies were reluctant to give up spectrum. When Representative John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican, called the process of government agencies giving up spectrum for commercial uses a "win-win" situation, Strickling seemed to disagree.

Agencies "haven't quite seen what the win is for them," he said.

In a national broadband plan released in March 2010, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission called on the federal government, television stations and other users to make 500MHz of spectrum available for commercial mobile broadband over the next 10 years. In June 2010, President Barack Obama voiced the same goal.

In the FCC's plan, about 200MHz would come from federal agencies. The NTIA, working with other agencies, has already identified 115MHz that can be vacated and auctioned, although 100MHz is above 3.5GHz and not currently attractive to mobile broadband providers.

The NTIA is also looking at whether to relocate agencies using spectrum from 1755 to 1850MHz, but it hasn't yet decided whether that band is a candidate for commercial auction, Strickling said. More than 20 government agencies now share that band of spectrum, including the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, he said.

"We have piled use upon use on top of each other," Strickling said.

Agencies need money for better spectrum relocation planning, Strickling said. He also called on commercial operators to be more willing to share spectrum.

A shared market "has to develop," he said. "We are running out of options of taking bands, clearing them totally, and making them available exclusively for commercial operators."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Tags John ShimkusMarsha BlackburntelecommunicationregulationLawrence StricklingU.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce CommitteeU.S. Federal Communications CommissionBarack ObamagovernmentbroadbandU.S. National Telecommunication and Information Administration3g4g

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Grant Gross

IDG News Service

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