Facing a Spectrum Crunch, DoD Solicits Ideas From Private Sector

By Sandra I. Erwin

The Pentagon worries that a dwindling supply of electromagnetic spectrum will cripple its high-tech weapon systems and global communications. The concern is shared by vendors that supply information technologies to the Defense Department.

This is a problem that calls for government-industry collaboration, says a Defense Departmentfedbizopps solicitation. The Pentagon wants fresh ideas on how to better manage the electromagnetic spectrum at a time when it is coming under pressure to relinquish valuable wireless frequencies in order to boost the capacity of commercial wireless carriers and extend Internet access to rural areas of the United States.

The Defense Department is hosting a gathering March 31 at the Atrium of the National Science Foundation, in Arlington, Va., to provide more details about future plans. According to the solicitation, the Pentagon will use fast-track contracting methods known as Section 845 "other transaction agreement" to fund technologies that would help the military cope with the electromagnetic spectrum crunch. Selected contractors are expected to finance at least one-third of the total cost of the project. "The government and industry share a common challenge of satisfying vastly increasing demand for the use of electromagnetic spectrum," the solicitation says. Spectrum shortage is a "fundamental issue as it hampers U.S. innovation and economic growth and hinders U.S. military operations both domestically and overseas."

Defense officials suggest industry members may consider forming a consortium that would seek to work with the government through an OTA agreement. "Any company, university, or research organization is eligible to join the consortium," the solicitation says. Participants should have expertise in wireless technologies, radars and signal processing, electronic warfare, and spectrum monitoring and sensing.

The move to canvass the private sector comes just weeks after thePentagon unveiled a new electromagnetic spectrum strategy that suggests it will resist giving up more spectrum but will nevertheless need to be more efficient in how it employs the airwaves. The strategy suggests there should be greater collaboration with civilian agencies and the private sector. The Pentagon began to draft the proposal 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.

The agency that oversees the allocation of spectrum in the federal government, the National Telecommunications Information Administration, has warned the Pentagon that it needs to find ways to share spectrum.

"DoD recognizes that meeting its own requirements amidst the growing commercial and consumer demand will require cooperation, compatibility and flexibility," NTIA Associate Administrator Karl Nebbia told reporters last month. "The longer term spectrum needs for government agencies and industry alike can only be met through spectrum sharing," Nebbia says. "And we are looking for a top-to-bottom commitment from all stakeholders to make it happen."

Industry experts caution that even spectrum management techniques will not be enough to cope with the soaring demand for broadband communications in the Defense Department. This may be an opportune time for the Pentagon to invest in alternative technologies that are not spectrum dependent, says Kevin L. Kelly, CEO of LGS Innovations, a supplier of communications systems.

“The Defense Department owns very little spectrum, particularly in the cellular band that allows 4G broadband communications,” he says in an interview. The military traditionally has used the lower bands of the spectrum for push-to-talk radio, and higher bands for unidirectional communications between aircraft and ships. For broadband services like voice over IP and data rich communications, the Pentagon has little to no spectrum in the United States, Kelly says. For overseas wars, the Pentagon can seize spectrum on a temporary basis, but in peacetime, this is a problem. Companies have designed radios that work in unprogrammed or unlicensed spectrum when it's available. LGS is pushing the idea of using free-space optical communications that don't interfere with existing RF links and can operate in a license free photonic part of the band. Several defense agencies have experimented with this technology but it is far from becoming mainstream.

Eventually, the Defense Department will have to consider alternatives to the status quo, Kelly says. “You can't get enough throughput through traditional RF and satellite based uplink, downlink communications to satisfy an insatiable need for bandwidth,” he says. “Satellites are widely available but are limited in bandwidth. The electrons are only going to go so fast.”

Topics: C4ISR, Cybersecurity, Tactical Communications, Infotech, Infotech, Infotech, Netcentricity

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