Education, Defense squabble over spectrum use

The Defense Department and the education community on Friday each flaunted their political trump card in a discussion on making telecommunications spectrum available for commercial, third-generation (3G) wireless uses. The debate at a New America Foundation seminar revealed the politically charged and prickly nature of the issue. Michigan Republican Fred Upton, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, has scheduled a July 24 hearing on 3G. "National security can't be measured in dollars," said Rear Adm. Robert Nutwell, deputy assistant secretary at the Defense Department. The wireless industry is making a run at spectrum used by the department. The industry is arguing that unless it gains access to more spectrum, the United States could fall behind other countries in technological developments and the technology industry subsequently could suffer. The U.S. wireless industry is angling for the 1755MHz to 1850 MHz band of spectrum. Asia and Europe have identified that band for their commercial wireless services, and there is a push for globally harmonized spectrum usage. Sharing the spectrum is not feasible, according to Nutwell, and unless comparable spectrum is found, Defense will not be able to relinquish its piece of the spectrum pie. As the military upgrades and integrates technology advances into its operations, it will need more and more spectrum, he added. "From a political standpoint, Congress won't jeopardize lives" in favor of commercial use, Nutwell said. The other spectrum being considered for commercial use is in the 2500 MHz to 2690 MHz block. Schools use that band for distance education and rent some of it for fixed wireless broadband services called multi-channel, multi-point, distribution-service (MMDS) technology, which is offered by companies like Sprint and WorldCom. Jay Keithley, vice president of federal regulatory affairs for Sprint, noted that his company is using the spectrum "as Congress wanted it to be used. ... We are helping to bridge the 'digital divide.'" Finding a way to ensure that high-speed Internet access is available to all Americans is a priority, according to many lawmakers. Moving schools out of that spectrum would deprive thousands of Americans of educational opportunities and hinder broadband deployment, Keithley said. But there are other ways to free spectrum besides getting into the reallocation fight, said Dale Hatfield, director of the interdisciplinary telecommunications program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Engineers need to make better use of the spectrum, he said, noting that there is a lot of interesting technology available. "Fighting for more spectrum won't solve the problem long term" because spectrum needs continue to grow, he said. But Thomas Hazlett, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, sees no spectrum shortage. Some 402 MHz of spectrum currently occupied by analog television stations is just waiting to be used, he said, because Congress has mandated the migration from analog to digital television broadcasting. Hazlett outlined a plan to allow all television programming to be provided over cable and satellite systems that transmit to analog and digital televisions.