Obama Backs Plan for Adding Broadband Wireless Spectrum

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama on June 28 issued a memorandum backing a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plan to free up 500 megahertz of federal and commercial spectrum, including some frequencies now used by U.S. weather satellites and mobile satellite service providers.

The FCC in March rolled out its congressionally mandated National Broadband Plan, which outlines policies and actions intended to ensure all Americans have high-speed Internet access. The plan’s long-term goals include ensuring the United States has the world’s fastest and most extensive broadband infrastructure; ensuring at least 100 million U.S. homes have access to affordable broadband services with speeds of 100 megabits per second; and enabling citizens to use broadband services to track energy consumption.

One of the linchpins of the National Broadband Plan is reallocating or crafting new sharing arrangements for a large amount of spectrum currently designated for use by federal agencies and commercial services, which are licensed by the FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration, respectively. Obama in the memorandum directed the FCC to complete by Oct. 1 a specific plan and timetable for identifying 500 megahertz of spectrum that over the next 10 years could be used for wireless broadband services.

“Expanded wireless broadband access will trigger the creation of innovative new businesses, provide cost-effective connections in rural areas, increase productivity, improve public safety, and allow for the development of mobile telemedicine, telework, distance learning, and other new applications that will transform Americans’ lives,” states the memorandum, which was posted on the White House website.

The FCC’s Spectrum Task Force announced June 18 that one of the areas it will seek to mine for wireless broadband use is spectrum now allocated for mobile satellite services. The FCC already had approved of U.S. hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners’ plan to build out a nationwide terrestrial wireless broadband network that will use L-band spectrum currently licensed for mobile satellite services. Now it is seeking to reallocate or share an additional 90 megahertz of mobile satellite services spectrum.

“This initiative is an opportunity to make additional spectrum available for mobile broadband by promoting greater spectrum efficiency and flexibility,” Julie Knapp, co-chairwoman of the task force, said in an FCC press release. “The Spectrum Task Force remains firmly committed to maintaining robust mobile satellite capability that serves important needs like disaster recovery and rural access. I am confident that we can achieve all of these goals and create a win-win solution.”

The FCC also is considering sharing arrangements for 35 megaherz of spectrum currently used by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to downlink data from weather satellites and weather balloons. The FCC on June 4 issued a request for information on the possible ramifications of such an action, responses to which were due June 28.

NOAA uses the frequency bands between 1675 megahertz to 1710 megahertz to downlink weather and climate data from its geostationary and polar-orbiting weather satellites to thousands of data receiving stations on the ground, NOAA spokesman John Leslie said in a July 2 e-mail. NOAA weather satellites in development also are planned to use these frequencies. The FCC says this data could instead be routed to users over the Internet and via other means from NOAA’s primary satellite command and control centers’ ground stations, thus freeing these frequency bands in many locations for wireless broadband.

Many of the users of NOAA weather data indicated that Internet distribution would not provide a sufficiently timely service and would lack the availability, security and severe weather survivability achieved by direct downlink, Leslie said. Some users in rural areas currently receiving direct downlinks do not have sufficient bandwidth available for this kind of distribution, Leslie said. However, since the search for wireless spectrum is driven by demand in congested areas, users in rural areas may not be affected at all under the proposals under consideration, he noted.

No federal spectrum will be repurposed if it is determined that doing so would degrade critical national capabilities, a White House official said June 28 during a background briefing with reporters.

“It won’t happen if there is a loss in terms of our ability to forecast for the weather and climate community,” the official said. “The question you have is, are there ways that you can take advantage of the fact that a lot of the system was set up, for example, before the Internet was what it is today? So you can transmit and share more data over the Internet rather than directly to users.”