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Industry, Pentagon square off in spectrum debate

As government officials convened a summit Thursday to discuss the thorny issues surrounding better management of U.S. airwaves, the same arguments that have plagued the debate for years once again took center stage at the Commerce Department.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) convened the Spectrum Management and Policy Summit "to give everyone a vision to tackle the old problems of the past in a new kind of way that would make everybody's life better," said Commerce Secretary Donald Evans.

Panelists were asked to consider sharing spectrum among commercial and government interests, spectrum efficiency and predicting changes, but the discussion still rests on whether national security interests can balance with consumer demand.

"We as a commercial group are running out of spectrum," said John Stanton, chairman and CEO of VoiceStream and Western Wireless. He noted that Britain and Japan have allocated more spectrum to commercial users and unless the United States follows suit, the "consequence is to live in a less competitive economy than we all live in today."

But spectrum is a "finite and already fairly crowded resource," Evans said. The majority of U.S. spectrum is occupied, and 96 percent of the activity occurs in about 10 percent of the available spectrum.

Industry has been trying to coax the largest user, the Defense Department, into sharing its spectrum or reallocating to another band. But the process has been arduous and became even more complex after Sept. 11.

Sharing is feasible if regulators are willing to "put the burden on those who are trying to change the world, as opposed to we who are trying to defend it," said John Stenbit, assistant secretary for defense for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence (C3I) at the Defense Department.

Commercial users must be held "liable for lack of service that occurs in the incumbent," he said. For example, Defense tests precision-guided missiles occasionally, which frees that spectrum for commercial much of the time. But what happens if interference from commercial users causes that missile to go to the city next door?

Government is looking at harmonizing U.S. spectrum use with other countries, moving to more efficient uses and possibly aggregating similar uses in the same or adjacent bands, which could require reallocation, said NTIA Director Nancy Victory. If reallocation is inevitable, "how do you go through it with minimal disruption and being fair to all parties concerned?" she asked.

Stanton said any reallocation issues, such as timing and cost, must be resolved in advance of a spectrum auction, noting that companies will not pay as high a fee if it is uncertain when they will access the spectrum.

But in moving the DoD's use, "the risk is still all mine," Stenbit said. "That asymmetry in my mind is absolutely untenable." The auction proceeds go to the U.S. government, and it is unclear whether DoD would ever see those funds to even be able to reallocate them, he said.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell also noted that many of the problems with spectrum management "are rooted in statutory mandates that can't be put aside" and will require Congress to resolve.