Battle Over Wireless Spectrum Pits Military Needs Against Economic Interests

By Sandra I. Erwin

The U.S. military has spent decades and billions of dollars modernizing its information systems in preparation for a "network centric" age of warfare. But the Pentagon now faces an acute shortage of wireless spectrum, and will either have to curtail its appetite for data or will have to increasingly share portions of the electromagnetic spectrum with civilian users.

The Pentagon for years has been under pressure to relinquish prime spectrum "real estate," and it has in the past agreed to do so. But officials caution that the military can no longer afford to give up spectrum and, instead, would be open to greater sharing of the airwaves with other users. The Obama administration has asked for an additional 500 megahertz so it can boost the capacity of commercial wireless carriers and extend Internet access to rural areas of the United States.

The allocation of wireless, or radio-frequency, spectrum is overseen by the Federal Communications Commission for commercial use and by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for federal government use.

The Pentagon unveiled anew electromagnetic spectrum strategy Feb. 20 that suggests it will resist giving up more spectrum. The strategy calls for more efficient use of the airwaves and for greater collaboration with civilian agencies and the private sector. The Pentagon began to draft the strategy in 2010 after President Obama asked for 500 MHz of spectrum to be made available for commercial use by 2020. He mandated that federal agencies free up a significant portion of wireless spectrum so that it can be used by individuals and businesses to spur domestic economic growth.
For the military, the implications are significant. "Electromagnetic spectrum access is a prerequisite for modern military operations," the DoD strategy says. The Defense Department sees rising demand for spectrum just as the global wireless broadband industry faces soaring consumer demand for global mobility and data access. "These competing requirements for finite spectrum resources have changed the spectrum landscape, nationally and internationally, for the foreseeable future," says the strategy." In the future, "our national leaders will be challenged to make decisions that balance national security with economic interests."

Teri Takai, the Defense Department's chief information officer and the architect of the strategy, says regulatory agencies, the Pentagon and the telecom industry should work together on this issue. "We must identify ways to make more spectrum available for commercial use, and find technologies that enhance spectrum sharing, all while improving how DoD accesses spectrum," she tells reporters Feb. 20 at a Pentagon news conference.

Takai pushes back on the idea that the Pentagon will have to get by with less spectrum. "We are not making the assumption that DoD will have to make do with less spectrum," she says. The question is how the military's needs can be met along with commercial needs, she says. "There are ways to do that. It's not all or nothing," says Takai. "We all need to be more efficient in how we use spectrum. ... We all have the same challenges."

An immediate course of action, she says, will be to regulate the procurement of data-hungry equipment so it does not exacerbate the spectrum shortage. The Pentagon will provide guidelines to program managers, she says, to "make spectrum management a more critical part of our future acquisition programs." A system that targets a specific spectrum band is not desirable, she says. Systems should be "flexible and agile" in how they use spectrum.

A stark illustration of how spectrum affects military procurements is the Army's limitations in what wireless systems it can buy, such as 4G networks. When the military is at war, it can grab spectrum for emergency use. To deploy 4G networks for routine peacetime operations, the Army needs licensed spectrum. Increased deployments of unmanned air vehicles across all branches of the military also aggravate the spectrum crunch.

The military agreed to share the frequencies from 1755 to 1780 megahertz with commercial companies and to vacate the 1710 to 1755 bands. Takai's deputy, Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert E. Wheeler, says he fears that the encroachment on military spectrum will only increase, and insists that the Pentagon should take preemptive measures.

"Spectrum is the thread that ties all of DoD together," Wheeler says Feb. 18 in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Data traffic across the military grows consistently by 20 percent each year, he says. "It is clear that more spectrum is going to be required — or more efficient use of spectrum."

Shifting spectrum allocations can be a risky and costly business, he warns. "You have to be extremely careful of where it touches." Interference can be a life or death proposition in military operations such as missile defense, he says.

Modern technologies such as dynamic spectrum might be one way to cope with the shortage, he says. Taking military satellites off certain bands can cost billions of dollars. There are Defense Department satellites today in bands that the telecom industry needs. These are satellites that were put in orbit in the industrial age when the Pentagon had ample access to spectrum.

Wheeler says he worries that the military's airwaves will continue to be targeted in the information age. "It is a never-ending move." Possible solutions might be compression technologies and spectrum sharing, he adds. "We are going to have to think through how we do business in the future if we're going to use every single piece of that spectrum correctly," Wheeler says. "We're going to have to do more sharing in the future. We understand that. That's going to require a technology and regulatory piece, and policy, and we're working hard to make that happen."

Topics: C4ISR, Cybersecurity, Tactical Communications, Defense Department, DOD Leadership

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