US eyes airwaves for wireless data

By Anick Jesdanun, AP

NEW YORK–The U.S. government wants to alleviate data congestion on smartphones and other mobile devices by asking the Defense Department, NASA and other agencies to switch to new locations on the airwaves or share their existing frequencies with commercial networks.

The Commerce Department said Tuesday that it has identified a 95 megahertz-wide band that could be auctioned to wireless companies. That’s enough to support at least two new national wireless data networks. The block is particularly desirable because it is near frequencies already available to cellphone companies.

Freeing up the airwaves won’t be easy, however. The military uses parts of that block for training and missile-guidance systems. Law enforcement agencies need it for video surveillance. NASA and the Pentagon operate unmanned aircraft there.

The government estimates that there are more than 20 federal agencies with roughly 3,100 individual frequency assignments in the 1755-1850 MHz band. The government will have to find new homes for them and could spend as much as US$18 billion over 10 years moving current users to new locations.

Commerce officials hope to reduce costs and speed up the transition by brokering sharing arrangements. The government will seek to recover the costs by auctioning that spectrum to companies. In a 2008 auction, the Federal Communications Commission sold the right to use about 54 megahertz of spectrum to various buyers, chiefly AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless, for US$19.6 billion.

The latest effort stems from the Obama administration’s call in June 2010 to nearly double the space available for commercial wireless carriers. The wireless industry currently holds roughly 500 megahertz of spectrum, but hasn’t put all of it to use yet. U.S. President Barack Obama challenged the federal government to free up another 500 megahertz.

Wireless and technology companies are clamoring for more spectrum to meet growing demand for movies, games and other data-intensive activities on mobile devices. But, at the same time, federal agencies have become more reliant on their frequencies as they send more unmanned vehicles, for instance, to support border-control and disaster-relief efforts.