Pentagon gives up part of airwaves for wireless industry

Federal agencies charged with overseeing the nation's airwaves have found a way to move government spectrum users to make 90 megahertz available to the wireless industry by 2008, government officials said Tuesday during a press conference. As part of the plan, the Bush administration on Tuesday submitted to Congress legislative language that would create a trust fund to reimburse government users that must move.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the FCC completed a viability assessment that found 45 MHz of spectrum each in the 1710 to 1770 MHz bands and the 2110 to 2170 MHz bands without disrupting communications systems critical to national security.

The industry has been lobbying Congress and the administration to make spectrum in those bands available but found formidable opposition within the Defense Department. The Pentagon insisted that comparable spectrum be found for reallocation, that the costs to move be covered and that security operations not be interrupted.

Steven Price, deputy assistant Defense secretary, praised the proposal, noting that "military capabilities will not be degraded because [Defense] is gaining access to comparable spectrum where needed, receiving cost reimbursement and being afforded time to adjust to our operations."

The Commerce Department, which oversees NTIA, sent draft legislation that would create a trust fund for reimbursing incumbent government users for the cost of moving to different spectrum.

NTIA Director Nancy Victory said she is optimistic that Congress will pass the legislation before it adjourns for the year, noting that there is bipartisan support for the proposal, although sponsors have not yet been found.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest (Fritz) Hollings, D-S.C., and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, issued a joint statement lauding the resolution to the spectrum question. The lawmakers said they soon would introduce legislation that addresses "a number of spectrum-management issues, including the reimbursement of government users when they are required to relocate." A spokesman for Hollings noted that Hollings would craft his own bill.

While Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., supports allocating additional spectrum for the industry, "it is a tall order to expect Congress to legislate on this before adjournment," said Colin Crowell, an adviser to Markey.

"There is a general consensus that more spectrum is better than less spectrum, but the details need airing," Crowell said, noting that Markey would push for inclusion of his legislation that would create grants out of spectrum-auction proceeds to fund educational and other programs, and to digitize library and museum content.

"This is a package deal," Price said. All agencies must meet their obligations, from assessing the cost to vacate spectrum to the FCC promulgating rules for spectrum allocation and auctioning it, to Congress approving the trust fund. "If they don't do it," he said, "we don't move."

Officials expect the FCC to be able to auction the spectrum by 2004 or 2005-it must be cleared by 2008-but it could happen earlier, depending on how quickly the process moves, they said.