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Washington starts hunt for a ‘model city’ for wireless experimentation

Chicago (Monika Thorpe)

No, the federal government isn't whipping up a new American city from scratch to test out its ideas about the wireless Internet. Can you imagine getting budget approval for that? But it is doing something new and provocative: searching for an urban area in the United States willing to host experiments on how the private sector can tap the limited and valuable radio spectrum that the federal government, by general consensus, currently hogs.

Last week, two federal telecommunications agencies put out a call for such a spectrum-sharing "model city."

Radio spectrum is the oxygen that gives life to mobile technologies like smartphones and tablets, and the U.S. government has been nudged by many to figure out how the country can wring more use out of the frequencies it controls; as of 2012, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, federal agencies dominated some 43 percent of the best radio frequencies.

But tests on so-called smart radio or cognitive radio (think "radio" as in radio waves, not the music and chatter you might listen to in the car) have been generally limited to military bases, computer labs or rural areas. "Small-scale settings" is how one NTIA official describes them, "where nobody is going to get hurt."

Those locations can fall short as testing grounds for dynamic sharing. For one thing, government frequencies are used on Army and Navy bases for everything from training to communications to air traffic safety, skewing research toward believing that federal spectrum is more crowded than it generally is in the outside world.

And they can lack a large diverse user base needed to put sharing schemes through their paces. More broadly, those often homogeneous environments fail to mimic what spectrum has to stand up to in day-to-day use.

"As systems grow in complexity, interconnectedness, and geographic distribution," reads a 2012 report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that floated the "model city" plan, "they increasingly experience emergent behavior." In other words, the unpredictable messiness of city living is what is needed to demonstrate whether dynamic sharing can ever evolve from a promising technology of the future to a viable solution for the federal government's spectrum management challenges.

The ideal test city? According to NTIA, which is leading the project along with the Federal Communications Commission, it will be an urban area with a large, diverse pool of possible users and possibly an academic or research community willing to roll up its sleeves and try spectrum sharing on for size.

The test city would, in the best case, offer up for telecommunications purposes its resources, including its roadways and utility poles, in much the same way has happened with Google Fiber in Kansas City and elsewhere. Landlocked Chicago is one possibility, as it is outside the range of naval radar. Wilmington, N.C., is another, as it has served as a testing ground on unlicensed, empty spectrum "white spaces" in the past. But NTIA cautions that no decisions have been made.

Part of what is driving the "model city" concept, whose cost has been pegged at $60 million for the first three years of operation, is the notion that commercial users have been reluctant to try sharing spectrum with the federal government, even given its considerable potential for wireless broadband and other technologies, out of a lack of certainty and transparency over how such public-private slicing up of a shared resource would work.

A particular worry: that despite a stated interest from the federal government in exploring a "lights and sirens" approach -- that is, only using the available spectrum for public safety reasons during emergencies -- they might in practice become more skittish about possible radio interference. The test city would give all parties a chance to test out working relationships as much as new technologies.

Brent Skorup is a research fellow with Mercatus Center's Technology Policy Program at George Mason University. "Dynamic spectrum sharing is still fairly theoretical at this point," he cautions, "and it could be decades before it becomes widespread." But the federal government, he says, doesn't have many other good, obvious options for upgrading its spectrum management.

The potential is big. More spectrum, say many, means the possibility of more wireless innovation in the United States, with increased space on the radio waves freeing experimentation on everything from remote-controlled drones to new ways of delivering mobile broadband.

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.



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