Soon, your wireless devices could be using the military’s old spectrum

November 26, 2013

FILE: Sgt. Mollie Pitz, of Indianapolis, with the 38th Military Police Company, 38th Infantry Division, authenticates and communicates a situation report on a radio network to Sgt. Brian Werking, of Moorseville, Ind., with Headquarters Company, 219th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, during the Noncommissioned Officer of the Year competition held at Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center, Ind., Mar. 31, 2012. Camp Atterbury - Muscatatuck Public Affairs

The military is nearing a deal with broadcasters that would clear up valuable spectrum for consumers' airwave-hungry wireless devices.

A key federal agency, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, on Monday endorsed a proposal by the Defense Department that would have the Pentagon movE some of its operations into airwaves currently licensed to television stations. What's left behind will be made available for an upcoming auction that will benefit cellular providers, such as AT&T and Verizon. Those companies intend to use the new spectrum to enhance 3G and 4G data networks.

In exchange for giving up control over its federally-owned spectrum, the Pentagon should get access to new spectrum in the higher-frequency 2.1 GHz band, the NTIA said in a letter Monday to the Federal Communications Commission. That part of the spectrum is currently used by broadcasters for internal communications. It's also partly used by NASA for space satellites. The NTIA — an arm of the Commerce Department — effectively oversees the federal government's share of the wireless spectrum, which is substantial.

"These changes would provide DoD additional spectrum access to a band with comparable technical characteristics to restore essential military capabilities that will be lost as a result of relocating systems out of 1755-1780 MHz," the letter read.

Scott Bergmann, vice president of regulatory affairs for the wireless group CTIA, hailed the endorsement, calling it "an important step forward."

The FCC is hoping to clear up 300 MHz of spectrum for wireless broadband by 2015, and 500 MHz by the end of the decade. Part of that effort involves repurposing 120 MHz from the broadcasters themselves, even as the plan to cram DoD into their spectrum moves forward.

Under the tentative deal, which is expected to cost the Pentagon $3.5 billion, broadcasters would be expected to share channels with the military. To avoid interference as much as possible, the military will need radio equipment that lets its transmissions intelligently jump frequencies. The change won't just alter the way voice communications are handled; drones, precision-guided bombs and electronic warfare operations that rely on radio spectrum may also be affected.

The agreement aids a longer-term effort by the Obama administration to convince federal agencies to use their airwaves more efficiently. President Obama issued a presidential memorandum to that end in June.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers greeted the NTIA endorsement with praise.

"This effort will help free up licensed spectrum to meet growing commercial demand while protecting the missions of our men and women in uniform," said Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), leaders in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in a statement.

At a news conference, the National Association of Broadcasters' Rick Kaplan said he was "very confident" that the remaining details of the deal will be hammered out.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung · November 26, 2013