Spectrum Policy for National Government Users: A Worldwide Policy Challenge

Spectrum Policy for National Government Users: A Worldwide Policy Challenge

Michael J. Marcus

National governments around the world are generally large scale spectrum users for their military and civil governmental operations.  Today, many governmental functions are spectrum intensive due to the increasing mobility and use of information in today’s societies and economies. The civil functions range from air traffic control to public safety operations to fixed and mobile wireless networks to support other functions that are key to toady’s societies.  The spectrum resources that are used for such governmental functions are generally not available for private sector users, although some sharing is possible in classic spectrum policy.  National government spectrum use is a difficult regulatory issue because the very same national government that is using such spectrum includes the regulator that sets the rules for private sector use.  In many countries military authorities play a key role in national spectrum management.

Spectrum is generally fungible for national government and private sector use and is a key input to wireless systems that have a large impact on national economic growth which in turn impact national government revenues. This article will explore the policy challenge of regulation national government spectrum use and discuss a recent US report on the issue.

Different countries have chosen different mechanisms for balancing national government and private sector spectrum use.  In Japan, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) is the unitary regulator of all spectrum use and consistent with the Japanese style of government deals with other agencies on a somewhat distant basis.  In the US, spectrum policy responsibility is split between the independent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with jurisdiction over private sector and local government use and the executive branch’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) with jurisdiction over national government use.  In the United Kingdom the Office of Communications (Ofcom) has responsibility for the “communications sector” while the national government, acting through a little known official committee of the Cabinet Office, the UK Spectrum Strategy Committee (UKSSC), has responsibility for national security and public safety spectrum use.

In the UK, the government has stated that “public bodies will acquire spectrum through the market, with administrative assignment by Ofcom only being made in exceptional cases” and that “(t)he Government is committed to paying administered incentive pricing  (AIP) on its spectrum holdings”.[1] (AIP is an estimate of spectrum value based on spectrum scarcity and other factors.[2])  In the US and some other countries, national government spectrum users pay a small fee for spectrum use that is calculated only on NTIA’s administrative costs and is independent of free market spectrum value. Thus the UK is unique in the world for its progress in treating spectrum use by the national government basically on the same economic terms as private sector use.  While this may seem unusual to people who have dealt with spectrum for a long time, national governments around the world generally pay market prices from other key resources and products they use ranging from electricity to fuel to vehicles to land.

In July 2012 the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report on national government spectrum use policy entitled “Report to the President: Realizing the Full Potential of Government-held Spectrum to Spur Economic Growth”[3].  Parts of this report has been very controversial[4] within the US because it advocates limiting previously planned reallocations of national government spectrum to commercially-operated mobile broadband systems and focusing on accommodating commercial spectrum use on increased sharing of spatial and temporal bands by national government users and private sector users.  But in addition to this controversial recommendation there are several other recommendations that have received little attention and may be applicable to situations in other countries.

The report finds that “(t)here is no incentive system today for Federal (national) Government agencies to be efficient in their use of spectrum or to share spectrum allocated to them with the non-Federal (private/local government) sector” and recommends that the “essential element of this new Federal spectrum architecture is that the norm for spectrum use should be sharing, not exclusivity.” Because much national spectrum use is different in temporal and geographic characteristics than much of the other use, it finds that sharing will be possible in many cases with the provision that non-national government users must change their spectrum use temporarily when and where there is a surge of national spectrum use, for example during military training exercises. 

The report recommends that national government agencies using spectrum should be given incentives to decrease their spectrum use because increased spectrum availability for the private sector has real economic benefit.  Generally government entities are subject to strict budget constraints that make it difficult to impossible to explore system design changes to existing systems that could lower their spectrum requirements.  While US already now provides for agencies to be reimbursed for the cost of moving to new bands, the cash flow of agency expenditures to plan and implement such a change and the reimbursement to the agency do not match well in terms of timing and amounts.

The report suggests creating a revolving Spectrum Efficiency Fund that 

“recycles private sector payments for use of Federal spectrum into reimbursements to Federal agencies for investments that facilitate spectrum sharing and enhance spectrum efficiency. Congress should allow the Fund to reimburse qualifying costs by any Federal service, not just those in revenue­generating bands.”  

The new fund would not have the cash flow limitations of the present scheme that discourage agency investments in planning studies and small scale tests of new technology since they can not be reimbursed presently until the spectrum has been auctioned to private users – possibly years later.  The report goes further in recommending a major accounting change to facilitate agency changes that make more spectrum available to others:

“Spectrum currency is our name for a synthetic currency that would give agencies a means to identify the opportunity costs associated with their use of spectrum and to obtain benefits by sharing or vacating some parts of their assigned spectrum and provide a way for them to “buy” their spectrum usage rights and reduce their spending by improving spectrum efficiency…To turn their gains in efficiency to practical advantage, agencies desiring to accelerate their transition to the new scheme could use their spectrum currency to bid every year for equipment credit from the Spectrum Efficiency Fund … that would enable them to increase their service quality.”  

The UK has led the way in holding national government spectrum users more accountable for their spectrum use through the pricing of spectrum for most government and private spectrum users.  The recent US PCAST report explores new options to try to balance the equities of national government and private sector spectrum use.  These will  generally be controversial in each country and it is important that the technical wireless community become familiar with the issues involved in order to contribute to national deliberations on what is the best approach for each country.

Michael J. Marcus ([email protected]) (S ’66, M ’72, SM ’01, F ‘04) is Director of Marcus Spectrum Solutions, Cabin John, Maryland, adjunct professor at Virginia Tech’s Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, and chair of the IEEE-USA Committee on Communication Policy.  He retired from the Federal Communications Commission in 2004 after nearly 25 years in senior spectrum policy positions.  While at FCC, he proposed and directed the policy developments that resulted in the bands used by Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee and unlicensed millimeter wave systems. He was an exchange visitor to the Japanese Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and has been a consultant to the European Commission and the Singapore regulator. He received S.B. and Sc.D. degrees in electrical engineering from MIT. 

[1] Cabinet Official Committee on UK Spectrum Strategy (UKSSC), Government Response and Action Plan for Independent Audit of Spectrum Holdings, March 2006 (http://www.spectrumaudit.org.uk/pdf/governmentresponse.pdf)

[2] Ofcom, Our current practice in setting AIP fees, 29 March 2010 (http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/consultations/srsp/appendixA.pdf)


[4] http://ctia.org/media/press/body.cfm/prid/2196

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