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Senators decry spectrum policy, name defense as top priority

Senators leveled criticism at the nation's spectrum-management process during a Tuesday hearing, calling the process everything from inefficient and piecemeal to a tool used to fatten the treasury, but they agreed that any changes must meet Defense Department needs.

"We do not have a spectrum policy," Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest (Fritz) Hollings, D-S.C., said in calling for a review of the way the nation manages its airwaves. He noted that there is a need for wireless-based high-speed connections to the Internet "but most importantly a need for the Department of Defense."

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Defense estimated that its spectrum usage would grow by more than 90 percent by 2005, but that figure is probably low given the need for enhanced security now, said Steven Price, a deputy assistant secretary at the department.

"Defense must have top priority," Price said, reiterating that any attempts to reallocate airwaves currently occupied by the department to new spectrum to make room for commercial wireless services must be studied carefully to prevent any disruption in national defense.

After calling for the United States to harmonize its commercial uses of spectrum with policies in other nations and to ensure that companies can deploy innovative services, Sen. George Allen, R-Va., conceded, "I don't think any of this will ever occur if the Defense Department feels this is harming" their ability to defend the nation.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) plans to release a report later this month on the feasibility of freeing prime spectrum for advanced wireless uses, NTIA Director Nancy Victory said.

Tom Sugrue, chief of the Federal Communications Commission's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, noted that moving toward more flexible uses of spectrum, including allowing carriers to change the types of services they offer or to lease spectrum to others, would improve efficiency.

But Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., questioned whether two agencies-the FCC and NTIA-should oversee spectrum and whether the auction process is wise. "I fear the division leads to bureaucratic turf battles," Burns said, adding that the auctions "create a win-at-all-costs mentality that inflates the prices" and debt that cripples the winning bidders.

At the request of Burns, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a study on spectrum management that found the shared oversight of the FCC and NTIA generally has worked well but is becoming more complex as technology evolves.

While both agencies have policies to determine spectrum efficiency, a lack of resources and staff have hindered the government's ability to assess its spectrum use, GAO concluded. For example, one major agency has more than 1,000 frequency assignments that have not been reviewed in 10 years, said Peter Guerrero, GAO's director of physical infrastructure issues.

The agencies also "have not gotten the support they need in the budget process to purchase the equipment" that would make spectrum use more efficient, he said.