The Trump administration is taking its turn at trying to solve the persistent and increasingly pressing problem of how to make sure there is enough wireless spectrum available to meet the burgeoning demands of the communications industry and the Federal government, in particular the U.S military.

On one side of the demand equation are commercial wireless service providers who want to meet the apparently insatiable demand for spectrum to keep putting faster and more sophisticated services in the hands of consumers and businesses–and who have spent many billions of dollars to build their extensive spectrum portfolios. On the other side sits the Federal government and the Defense Department in particular whose increasingly sophisticated weapons systems and communications technologies rely ever-more frequently on exclusive or priority access to generous swaths of wireless spectrum.

In a Presidential Memorandum issued Oct. 25, the administration made clear that it is aiming to satisfy both of the major players in the demand equation through increased use of spectrum on “shared” and “flexible use” bases.

The idea of sharing spectrum is nothing new–and never the first choice of big commercial or government users–but the primary tenets of the White House policy memorandum indicate that more sharing and flexible-use models are inevitable in order to make more spectrum–a finite resource–available to boost national security through use of increasingly sophisticated technologies while also providing the commercial sector with the spectrum capacity it needs to continue driving economic growth at multiple levels.

The White House memorandum puts in motion a list of Federal agency tasks that could begin to bear fruit on wireless spectrum policy issues nine months from now.

First, the Secretary of Commerce will deliver a report in six months on the status of existing efforts and planned spectrum repurposing initiatives in the near and medium terms. Commerce will work on that effort through its National Telecommunications and Information Administration component, the Office of Management and Budget, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Federal Communications Commission.

Concurrent with that effort, Federal agencies will report in to Commerce on their anticipated future spectrum requirements and review their current frequency assignments and quantify their current spectrum usage.

Then, Commerce will deliver to the President in nine months a report with legislation, regulatory, and other policy recommendations to accomplish several broad aims, chief among them “to increase spectrum access for all users, including on a shared basis, through transparency of spectrum use and improved cooperation and collaboration between Federal and non-Federal spectrum stakeholders.”

The report will also recommend ways to:

  • “Create flexible models for spectrum management, including standards, incentives, and enforcement mechanisms that promote efficient and effective spectrum use, including flexible-use spectrum licenses, while accounting for critical safety and security concerns;
  • Use ongoing research, development, testing, and evaluation to develop advanced technologies, innovative spectrum-utilization methods, and spectrum-sharing tools and techniques that increase spectrum access, efficiency, and effectiveness;
  • Build a secure, automated capability to facilitate assessments of spectrum use and expedite coordination of shared access among Federal and non-Federal spectrum stakeholders; and
  • Improve the global competitiveness of United States terrestrial and space-related industries and augment the mission capabilities of Federal entities through spectrum policies, domestic regulations, and leadership in international forums.”

When that report is delivered, a Spectrum Strategy Task Force co-chaired by the Federal Chief Technology Officer and the director of the White House’s National Economic Council will work with Commerce, FCC, and others to coordinate implementation of the White House memorandum.

This week’s memorandum puts no timing target on implementation. It does, however, revoke previous White House memoranda on wireless communications from 2010 and 2013.

In stating its case for updating spectrum policies, the White House cited the increasing reliance of the private sector and the government on spectrum and said, “our dependence on these airwaves is likely to continue to grow.”

Listed as expected priorities for future spectrum consumption are a range of technologies including autonomous vehicles, precision agriculture, commercial space operations, internet of things-based technologies, and fifth-generation (5G) wireless services and applications of all kinds. In that context, the memorandum states, “Flexible, predictable spectrum access by the United States Government will help ensure that Federal users can meet current and future mission requirements for a broad range of both communications- and non-communications-based systems.”

But on the defense side of the equation it also articulates, “America’s national security depends on technological excellence and the United States Government must continue to have access to the spectrum resources needed to serve the national interest, from protecting the homeland and managing the national airspace, to forecasting severe weather and exploring the frontiers of space.”

It continues, “Technological innovation in spectrum usage, moreover, occurs in both the private and public sectors. Federal agencies must thoughtfully consider whether and how their spectrum-dependent mission needs might be met more efficiently and effectively, including through new technology and ingenuity. The United States Government shall continue to look for additional opportunities to share spectrum among Federal and non-Federal entities. The United States Government shall also continue to encourage investment and adoption by Federal agencies of commercial, dual-use, or other advanced technologies that meet mission requirements, including 5G technologies. In doing so, we will take appropriate measures to sustain the radiofrequency environment in which critical United States infrastructure and space systems operate.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.