Military Expected To Share Airwaves As Wireless Market Explodes

By Stew Magnuson
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Wireless killer applications began with email, moved onto texting, then to web-surfing. Live video chat is expected to grow in popularity as 4G networks spread across the United States.

Where will all the spectrum required to move the exploding amount of data over broadband wireless networks come from?

As the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Commerce begin a desperate search to free up airwaves, U.S. military officials concede that they are going to have to relinquish exclusive control over some of the frequency bands in which the services currently operate.

“Ultimately, we are going to have to share spectrum,” said Steve Molina, director of the defense spectrum organization's strategic planning office at the Defense Information Systems Agency.

It is an important issue because the armed services need to train the way they fight in the United States, he said. There are officials in the U.S. government who make decisions on where and how to use spectrum who don’t have a good grasp of what the military needs.

“A lot of folks think we just use [military systems] abroad. That’s not the case,” Molina said at the Milcom conference here. “Important people don’t understand how we use spectrum and why it’s so important to the DoD. And that’s our fault. We don’t have the message out there.”

The battle over airwave real estate is expected to grow more intense during the next few years.

The FCC last year released its National Broadband Plan in an attempt to get a handle on the problem of dwindling spectrum. In June, President Obama asked the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to free up 115 megahertz of spectrum that could be used by both government agencies and the commercial market. That is part of an overall push to free up 500 megahertz of new spectrum for the commercial market during the next 10 years. The NTIA, which is under the Commerce Department, is responsible for allocating spectrum to federal departments and agencies. The FCC controls commercial markets.

A few weeks after Molina spoke, the NTIA recommended that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Defense Department share or give up 115 megahertz of spectrum currently used for radars.

Col. Brian Jordan, director of the Air Force spectrum management office, predicts turf wars. There will be competition between the federal and non-federal users, and even competition among the federal users, he predicted.

“How are we going to balance this fundamental competition?” asked Jordan, who stressed that his views were his own and did not represent the Air Force’s.

It could be a pure dollars-and-cents equation. That would make it a matter of what’s best for the economy.

How does the nation value the ability to train an aircrew on how to drop precision-guided munitions? How does it value the ability to detect a target that is trying to evade radars?

“The dollar-and-cents model by itself isn’t adequate,” Jordan added.

Reallocating spectrum, or setting up sharing mechanisms, will not happen over night, and the solutions will be expensive, he maintained.

The Air Force is now wrapping up a $100 million, four-year project to relocate a weapon system’s spectrum that was reallocated so it could be auctioned off. Now the service has learned that the spectrum is a heavy target for reallocation again.

“Examples like that will only become more prevalent if we can’t provide a better long-term picture to the federal agencies on what the spectrum environment is going to look like in the future,” Jordan added.

Thomas Kidd, director of strategic spectrum at the Department of the Navy, said costs can spiral. For example, moving a communication tower requires an environmental impact statement. If each report costs $100,000, moving just 30 towers will add up to millions.

That’s just an arbitrary figure. It costs a lot more to produce an environmental impact study, he added. “This isn’t decimal dust anymore when you consider moving our systems out of a bandwidth,” Kidd said.

Most likely, the services will be asked to share spectrum. That can be a complex challenge, and there needs to be more investment in technologies that will make this process easier, panelists said.

“Sharing” ultimately means that “someone will have to constrain their operations in some way or they’re going to have to move out of that spectrum into some place else,” Kidd said.
Jordan said the military and the commercial markets use the airwaves differently. “There are attempts to compare us apples to apples,” he said. “But we are doing such vastly different missions in the spectrum that apples-to-apples comparisons don’t work right.”

For the military, the efficient use of spectrum is important, but that takes a backseat to carrying out the missions it is asked to perform, Jordan said.

The services must be able to deploy where and when needed — often at a moment’s notice. Commercial communication companies work in cooperative environments. The military has to train for non-cooperative environments such as an enemy jamming or trying to intercept radio signals, or attempting to evade radar.

Consumers are willing to go out and pay for their new communications devices every one to three years, he noted.

The military often must integrate communication or sensor systems onto platforms that are expected to be in service for decades. An Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft has dozens of sensors all delicately configured for size, weight and power considerations. Moving them around is a complex task.

Walter Johnson, chief of the electromagnetic compatibility division at the FCC, said one of the changes coming is sharing infrastructure

“We can’t afford to support silos anymore,” he said. Exclusive use of spectrum for one application may become a thing of the past. Dynamic sharing mechanisms would mean a seamless switching of applications within a band without the users knowing it.

As for reaching the 500-megahertz goal, the FCC is “looking for low hanging fruit,” he said. But it is sometimes a 10-year process to clear legacy holders out and make the spectrum commercially viable. “One of the things we’re trying to understand is how we make the spectrum … available, not only on paper, but in fact.”

Molina said if the military must share its spectrum, it has to be done carefully. “Do we have extra space we can give up? No. But we do look hard at sharing,” he said.

Just because the spectrum is not in use 100 percent of the time, doesn’t mean it isn’t crucial, he added. A band reserved for missile test termination codes, which are only used to destroy errant rockets, may rarely be transmitted, but “when we need that, you guys want us to have it,” Molina added.

Johnson said commercial companies continually invest in technologies to maximize spectrum efficiency. Federal agencies haven’t done that in the past, but they are going to have to do so in the future.

Jordan said the country needs a national strategic spectrum plan. It should list priorities: the consumer market, first responders, navigation, air traffic control, national security and the generation of government revenues collected by auctions and fees. Then the nation needs to look at the state of technology. “What can help us now? What are some promising areas to invest in to let us meet national priorities more efficiently?”

And it needs to be a long-term plan. It should look 10 to 30 years down the road in many of these bands — especially when it comes to weapon systems that are expected to be in the inventory for decades to come.                                              

Topics: Infotech

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