With the new U.S. administration and Congress focused on spurring economic growth and job creation, our leaders should consider an arcane but critical issue affecting many economic sectors: the allocation and licensing of radiofrequency spectrum. With more than 400 bands of spectrum supporting more than 40 terrestrial and space services, this finite resource is used for everything from baby monitors and cellphones to aircraft landing systems, military radars and GPS. We must allocate spectrum wisely, ensuring that increasing demand from mobile operators doesn’t crowd out other worthy users.
Getting spectrum policy right is critical to continued American innovation and our country’s preeminent role in the global economy. Members of Congress, who will soon consider spectrum allocation legislation like the Making Opportunities for Broadband Investment and Limiting Excessive and Needless Obstacles to Wireless (MOBILE NOW) Act, are laying the groundwork for the regulatory infrastructure that the aerospace and defense industry, along with many others, will depend on for years to come. As they do, they must ensure continued spectrum availability for purposes critical to our national security, air transportation system and economic growth.
Spectrum is vital to nearly everything the aerospace and defense industry and its 1.7 million workers design, manufacture and support for government and commercial customers. Government agencies require spectrum to downlink data from weather satellites to forecast natural disasters and to provide Americans with GPS navigation and timing signals. Our nation’s air transportation system depends on spectrum for everything from monitoring aircraft during flight to providing critical communications and in-flight satellite broadband. The aerospace industry also provides broadband to consumers in areas that are not served by fiber or wireless carriers. Spectrum enables unmanned aircraft systems to find their way, avoid obstacles and communicate back to base. Our industry, relying on spectrum, generates tens of thousands of new well-paying, high-tech jobs annually, the highest trade surplus of any export sector, and the cutting-edge technological superiority that keeps America safe.
Some voices advocate for auctioning more federal spectrum for exclusive licensing to wireless operators as a “solution” to our spectrum challenges. However, this view ignores that the easy spectrum pickings are gone, and that relocating government radar, weather and other systems to new spectrum will only get harder, and more expensive. Fundamental physics means that certain ranges of spectrum are ideal for certain purposes. The same technical characteristics that make “beachfront” spectrum so useful for the wireless industry also make it invaluable for a variety of other important government and commercial systems.
New mandates to reallocate government spectrum will have real consequences to agencies trying to provide national security and other services to our nation. They risk delayed programs, diverted staff hours and increased programmatic costs. Impacts would be particularly acute if agencies are forced to relocate systems before they have the time and funding to develop, test and validate the potential of alternative spectrum. Even where agencies are able to relocate systems, they may have to accept reduced range, higher power requirements or other performance trade-offs.
This alarming trend is already playing out in the 1675-1680 MHz band, where a private broadband provider has proposed to take away for its own financial gain spectrum currently used to communicate safety-critical satellite weather data to users across the country.
Our industry supports smart policy and technological solutions to maximize the value of finite spectrum, including changing Spectrum Reallocation Fund rules to allow the government to identify technological solutions enabling greater spectrum sharing and techniques to increase spectral efficiency, such as real-time frequency assignment. Congress should also continue to expand investments in federal agencies’ spectrum research and development offices, including the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Department of Defense (DOD).
With the aerospace and defense industry, public safety agencies, first responders, entrepreneurs, and countless others increasingly dependent on access to spectrum, Congress should not view spectrum reallocations and auctions as simply sources of funding to plug small, temporary holes in the budget. We urge Congress to adopt policies that provide reliable access to spectrum for the aerospace and defense industry, innovative startups and government agencies serving the public, not just the wireless industry. The U.S. must have a robust, balanced and inclusive spectrum policy that preserves our nation’s civil aviation, space, communications and navigation systems and our national security. VS