Initiative Finds Common Ground on Spectrum Sharing

By David Simpson

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Spectrum is an invaluable national resource that is increasingly congested due to rising demand among commercial and federal users.

The long-term development of better mechanisms for spectrum coexistence between wireless and defense technologies should result in a win-win — supporting commercial wireless services and enhancing capabilities of U.S. forces as they deploy and operate. By expanding cooperation among spectrum stakeholders, we can help ensure that both U.S. national and economic security is maintained and advanced.

Policies that historically have assigned exclusive uses of spectrum may need to be rethought in order to deliver the innovations necessary to maintain U.S. global leadership in increasingly competitive global technologies markets.

In April 2020, the National Defense Industrial Association brought the major wireless and defense technology providers together in an unprecedented fashion to collaborate on a spectrum sharing initiative.

Why bring these two industry segments together? Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord recognized that a much needed technical collaboration between these two industries could encourage deep technical dialogue and partnership. At her request, NDIA launched a spectrum sharing initiative by creating a joint industry working group with the Defense Department serving as a steadfast partner in the ongoing discussions.

The current focus of this working group initiative is to facilitate implementation of the agreement to open the 3450-3550 MHz band to commercial use and to determine whether and how the 3100-3450 MHz band can be effectively shared to meet the requirements of the customers of both the wireless and the aerospace and defense technology providers.

It is a daunting task, but one driven by a vision that better meets the needs of both commercial and federal systems. It will require policy stakeholders and policy makers to consider operational factors and regulatory considerations through more regular, trusted, technical and policy information exchanges.

The near-term imperative to develop a rapid and effective path to 5G use of the 3450-3550 MHz band can serve as a pathfinder and, through lessons learned, inform technical and policy considerations of spectrum sharing approaches in the 3100-3450 MHz band.

In addition to the department’s effort to foster a technical dialogue, it has welcomed recommendations for improving regulatory, acquisition and organizational structure to advance spectrum governance and use improvements.

For example, the collaboration has yielded a number of recommendations on how the regulatory process led by the National Telecommunication and Information Administration and the Federal Communications Commission can be enhanced. These include an update to the 17-year-old memorandum of understanding that currently outlines the framework for biannual meetings oriented around non-interference goals.

Recommendations also include: encouraging agency leadership to meet more regularly; establishing a standing working group to collaborate on sharing concepts; and providing an executive branch escalation path if a lack of resources or consensus emerges on how best to support national spectrum priorities.

The joint industry focus on the memorandum reflects strong expectations for a regulatory process that will encourage innovation and better suit rapid rates of change in spectrum technologies as well as support evolving demands for spectrum use in both the federal and commercial space.

A proven spectrum sharing environment should provide government agencies and commercial providers the flexibility to respond to needs, but also rapidly raise concerns.

An equally important element of the discussion has touched on steps the Defense Department could take in its acquisition of major defense programs, specifically to focus on ensuring continuous spectrum improvements. For example, the department can ensure that spectrum-dependent programs of record have a spectrum sustainment requirement and a funded periodic review to identify technology upgrades to enhance the program’s spectrum usage.

The department could also update its spectrum modeling to stay current with changes in fielded commercial technology.

Operationally, the Defense Department and commercial wireless service providers will need better mechanisms to identify interference concerns in real-time and make necessary adjustments to enforce the terms of any sharing agreements. Additional establishment of a defense spectrum mapping responsibility drawing from available commercial services would support many useful operational and planning goals.

More far-reaching recommendations for wireless and defense contractors include baking “sharing” into future designs and operations of networks and systems through “sharing by design.”

Pentagon spectrum leaders have encouraged the group to build upon previous work and consider transitioning the focused public-private collaboration to provide a permanent venue for spectrum dialogues; provide classified program support to allow sensitive capabilities, limitations and current vulnerabilities to be discussed and collaboratively addressed; establish a high-level spectrum R&D collaboration among government, academia and industry labs, with an advisory role to identify research gaps; and eventually expand its focus to move beyond 5G to other emerging wireless technologies that have relevance to DoD as the future internet-of-things environment develops.

David Simpson is a retired Navy rear admiral and a professor at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business.

Topics: Battlefield Communications

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