10 spectrum policy ideas: Aspen Institute

Amid renewed conversations around the re-authorization of the Federal Communications Commission’s auction authority for spectrum and what a new spectrum pipeline might look like, the Aspen Institute brought together government and private-sector stakeholders to work on a framework and action plan for a national spectrum strategy.

The resulting “Toward a National Spectrum Policy” report was developed based on a two-day event in May of this year and drew attention at the recent Spectrum Policy Symposium in Washington, D.C.

The concept of a national spectrum policy and modernizing the regulatory approach to spectrum has been around for quite some time, but actual changes to the federal system of split responsibility and spectrum silos have been in shorter supply than the reports urging a more holistic approach. In 2002, the Federal Communications Commission’s Spectrum Policy Task Force produced a report that “proposed nothing less than a revolution in federal spectrum management,” as the Cato Institute described it. In 2010, the Obama administration hung its hat on a ten-year goal of opening up an additional 500 megahertz of spectrum for fixed and mobile services. In 2018, former President Donald Trump issued an executive order to develop and implement a national spectrum strategy primarily focused on how to bolster U.S. technology leadership in 5G and get federal agencies to quantify their spectrum use as well as “thoughtfully consider whether and how their spectrum-dependent mission needs might be met more efficiently and effectively.”

The Aspen Institute report makes it clear that wireless spectrum increasingly acts as a basis for both U.S. innovation and economic benefit as well as services that both everyday citizens and government agencies depend on, from GPS to weather forecasting to first responder communications and of course, mobile voice and data for an ever-increasing variety of consumer, enterprise and industrial devices. “Those indispensable services, however, are only a precursor of many more such use cases that we will soon regard as fundamental to a thriving economy and society,” the report says. “The challenge for spectrum policymakers is to ensure that these disparate uses can coexist even as the intensity of use grows year after year. The report notes that as demand for wireless services has accelerated, spectrum is “increasingly contested and constrained. Meanwhile, policy disputes among a wide range of stakeholders — licensed incumbents, unlicensed upstarts, and government agencies — have become amplified as intensity of spectrum use has increased. Yet despite these competing demands, the United States does not have a holistic plan to accommodate the nation’s future spectrum needs.”

Indeed, the responsibility of spectrum oversight and management in split in the U.S.: between the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an executive branch agency, and the independent regulatory powers of the Federal Communications Commission. Meanwhile, the Department of State (with support from both agencies) coordinates U.S. participation in the International Telecommunications Union, which mediates spectrum coordination and harmonization issues on a global level.

“Over the last several years, there has been bipartisan recognition that the system by which the federal government addresses spectrum issues has deteriorated,” the report says.

It offers up both the blunt statement that “most of the desirable spectrum bands are already occupied” as well as a series of suggested actions, including:

-The federal government should reissue a ten-year spectrum plan that includes opening three to four bands below 15 GHz, each with about 400 megahertz of bandwidth to support the wider channels anticipated to be needed for both advanced 5G and as-yet-unstandardized 6G systems.

-Consider making “spectrum horizon” or millimeter-wave bands license-free. “Given the inherent limited and highly directional signal propagation at these frequencies along with the super abundance of bandwidth, any concerns raised regarding interference in these bands should take a back seat to maximizing spectrum access and innovation,” the report says.

-Congress, the FCC, and the Biden administration should “ensure a balance of licensed, unlicensed and shared authorization models.”

-The FCC, in coordination with the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice, should “undertake a comprehensive review of wireless competition policy.”

-Revise Congressional budgeting to be “spectrum policy neutral” rather than the current approach of Congress directing spectrum auction proceeds to pay for some of its spending priorities. Likewise, allow reimbursement for spectrum clearing/moving of incumbents to come from sources other than auction revenues.

-Potentially consolidate multiple radar systems onto shared platforms, and consolidate military L- and S-band test and training missions into a “unified, high-bandwidth, IP-based Joint Aeronautical Network (JANet), possibly in a higher frequency band.”

-Ensure that the spectrum needs of unmanned aerial systems and intelligent vehicle systems are accounted for in federal spectrum policy, including consideration of a z-axis or vertical-based element to licensing that takes non-terrestrial networks into account.

-“Supercharge” the secondary spectrum market with light regulation and “enhanced incentives” that would make it more attractive for incumbents to make unused spectrum available for sale or lease.

-Creating a Spectrum Bureau at the FCC as well as a Data and Analysis Bureau that could conduct periodic “spectrum censuses”.

-Make sure that $1.5 billion in Open RAN investment designated in the CHIPS Act gets distributed quickly and strategically “to provide the biggest and quickest boost to ORAN and catalyze third-party investment in the sector.”

The report also urges a broader, more informed and more flexible view of technology enablers. “The spectrum novelties of today may become the predominant network technologies of tomorrow,” it says.

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