In its new Report on Realizing the Full potential of Government-Held Spectrum to Spur Economic Growth, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (Council) has proposed that the Federal government share spectrum with commercial users in spectrum superhighways instead of attempting to clear and reallocate spectrum for exclusive commercial use. The Council contends that the current “spectrum crunch” is caused by artificial scarcity, and that building spectrum superhighways will be sufficient to meet the growing appetite for wireless data.

The Council, which brings together experts from academia and industry, including Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Microsoft Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie, proposes that the government should “creat[e] the spectrum equivalent of wide multi­lane superhighways, where the lanes are continuously shared by many cars, trucks, and other vehicles.” By creating these new superhighways, the Council believes that the U.S. “can multiply the effective capacity of spectrum by a factor of 1,000.” It envisions three tiers of users according to priority of access: Federal primary systems, secondary commercial licensees, and general authorized access users.  To share the spectrum, users “can make use of the wireless equivalents of signals, sensors, and stop lights to avoid ‘collisions’ with other users.”

The Council proposes creating these superhighways by dedicating “substantial frequency blocks spanning several hundred megahertz.”  Although the Council acknowledges that implementing this plan “may take a long time,” it proposes making two bands available for sharing almost immediately. The Council recommends that the 3550-3650 MHz band, which is used by military radar systems, be made available for sharing immediately. As for a second band, the Council proposes looking into “the 1675–1710 MHz band, [the] 406.1–420 MHz band, the 4950-5000 MHz band,” or the 3650–3700 MHz band. The Council also recommends starting with a major urban Test City. The Test city will ensure that incumbent spectrum users “have confidence that dynamic sharing of spectrum will not cause harmful interference,” and that new entrants will “be sure of the reliability of spectrum access that their business models depend on.” 

Two technological trends are especially important in making sharing possible—“small cell” operations (e.g., Wi-Fi) and improved system performance allowing interfering signals below threshold levels. In encouraging the government to share spectrum, the Council specifically recognizes that the FCC would have to focus on“minimum technical standards for the coexistence of transmitters and receivers, in contrast to the present system that focuses on transmitters.” Indeed, the Council recognizes that such standards are necessary to prevent “conflicts like the LightSquared-GPS dispute.”

The Council also recognized the need to create buy-in from Federal users. To encourage Federal users to clear spectrum for more productive uses, the Council proposes “an accounting, allocation, and incentive system (nominally called ‘Spectrum Currency’) . . . to reward agencies that move quickly” in sharing their spectrum.

The Council did not discuss specific plans for how access to this shared superhighway should be provided. It mentions “[e]xperimenting with shorter-term, lower cost, spectrum license options for commercial users sharing Federal spectrum,” with hopes that alternative licensing structures “will foster new innovative ideas, increase the number of participants in this market, [and] contribute to economic growth.”  And it suggests that companies could “pay modest fees under a variety of leasing arrangements to obtain spectrum access with varying levels of quality of service and lease lengths, appropriate to their business needs.”