Working Paper

Revitalizing the Public Airwaves

Opportunistic Unlicensed Reuse of Government Spectrum
June 2009 |

The time has arrived for the unmet potentials of federal white spaces to receive some well-deserved attention. While many policy analysts have focused on the fate of the 700 MHz auctions, the digital TV transition, and the promise of television white space devices, the best available data suggests that the majority of federal spectrum capacity is left unused (McHenry, 2003; McHenry, 2004) – a situation that has gone largely unexamined. Strategic reuse of this spectrum could help obviate the need for significant additional frequency reallocations while enabling a wide range of creative new uses and social benefits. Based on what little information is publicly available, it is reasonable to assume that the repurposing of government spectrum would go far in addressing a number of access-related communication problems. Repurposing currently unused U.S. government-controlled spectrum for opportunistic unlicensed use would benefit society by dramatically expanding access to high-speed broadband and increasing the pace of wireless technological innovation. This approach to spectrum policy presents a “third way” for reform, drawing from both the commons and property rights models of spectrum management.

A growing consensus among engineers and analysts holds that recent and imminent technological improvements in the realm of cognitive radio technologies make it possible to strategically “borrow” unutilized spectrum in real time. By using a resource that would otherwise go to waste, intelligent wireless devices can provide a means for building new and complementing existing telecommunications infrastructures. If employed on a wide scale, policies that open up government spectrum for opportunistic unlicensed reuse have the potential to essentially eliminate the artificial scarcity that too often hinders efforts to develop next generation wireless communications systems. This shift in spectrum regulation could also help remedy America’s falling international ranking in broadband penetration by dramatically lowering the costs of communications, fostering a new wave of geolocational and social networking services and applications, and driving implementation projects throughout the United States.

In this paper we address the following questions: What is the reported utility of the federal spectrum? What data on current usage rates are publicly available? How can we protect existing uses while allowing unlicensed access? What technologies are needed for opportunistic unlicensed spectrum reuse? Based on open-ended, off-the-record discussions with government officials and an analysis of policy documents, this paper sketches competing normative assumptions underlying possible regulatory policies and examines spectrum use vis-à-vis its unmet potentials for maximizing social benefits. After examining some of the key debates regarding spectrum management models, we propose a “third way” argument that opportunistic reuse of government spectrum on an open and unlicensed basis affords the greatest value to the general public. We explain how the government’s tendency to auction off spectrum to raise revenue on a one-time basis is not ideal to ensure the advancement of new technologies and expanded broadband access for underserved areas. The paper concludes with a series of policy recommendations for implementing opportunistic reuse of government spectrum. By exploring models for spectrum management that take advantage of technological innovations, our analysis aims to help initiate a policy debate on spectrum reforms that may hold profound implications for the future of U.S. communications.

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The FCC and NTIA have continued to privilege an outdated model for licensure that allows only a single entity to broadcast on a given frequency, often at a specific power level and geographic location – resulting in an abundance of underutilized government spectrum that could be shared with a wide-range of important services. Advances in smart technology-enabled spectrum sharing will be able to simultaneously open this underutilized spectrum while protecting legacy federal users.