Share more of your precious wireless spectrum with private businesses, President Barack Obama told government agencies in a Friday memo.
What’s the deal? All wireless communications require spectrum, a government-regulated finite resource that’s limited to one larger-scale “user” at a time, like a radio station, cellphone provider or even a local wireless router. As the number and variety of wireless devices continue to skyrocket, the government is scrambling to find novel ways to allow private businesses the access they need to thrive economically while preserving access for public agencies such as NASA and law enforcement.
One idea to curb the problem is spectrum sharing, wherein User A would get spectrum while User B isn’t busy with it and vice versa. Example: Say you’re cruising down the highway next to a military base. If that base isn’t using its allocated wireless spectrum at the moment for military base things, your cellphone could use that spectrum so you could tweet a picture of that cool military base you just found (Just don’t get too close).
After years of pushing from advisors and outside commentators, Obama’s gone all-in on spectrum sharing. His wordy and technical order boils down to this: The White House Chief Technology Officer and the Director of the National Economic Council will co-chair a Spectrum Policy Team to work with the Secretary of Commerce, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and a variety of other players to research and then issue policies on federal spectrum sharing.
Importantly, the Spectrum Policy Team will also be charged with coming up with market-based financial incentives for federal agencies to share or relinquish their spectrum, giving them more of a reason to do so. The order also directs the FCC to find spots where private businesses and the government could share spectrum and to find areas where government agencies could move to free up spectrum for commercial uses.
Public Knowledge, a technology advocacy group, praised Obama’s spectrum sharing decision.
“Today’s directive requiring agencies to work on new ways to share our public airwaves more efficiently — with each other and with the private sector — will promote this wireless economy and allow it to continue to thrive,” said Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld.
“The federal grants for next-generation sharing technology will maintain America’s leadership for spectrum sharing technologies in an increasingly competitive global market.”
Obama’s order is a follow-up to his 2010 directive to make 500 MHz of spectrum available for wireless broadband in the next 10 years. The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees spectrum allocation, has since been reorganizing federal agencies’ access to spectrum and then auctioning off the newly freed blocks. But FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who advocates for spectrum sharing, argues that process “is reaching its limits.”
“That is why since my first days in office I have endorsed building our federal spectrum policy on carrots, not sticks,” Rosenworcel said in statement on Obama’s memo. “I strongly support the initiatives outlined in the Presidential Memorandum, especially using incentives as a catalyst for freeing more federal spectrum for commercial use.”
Is spectrum sharing the right thing to do? Share your thoughts in the comments.