The Defense Department has reached an agreement with the broadcasting industry on sharing some radio airwaves, making progress toward President Barack Obama's goal of clearing more valuable spectrum for mobile networks.
Obama directed federal agencies in June to look for ways to give up or share with the private sector more of the airwaves they control, three years after his call to open up 500 megahertz (MHz) of federal spectrum for commercial use to satisfy growing demands from data-hungry devices and services.
The Pentagon, which uses spectrum for programs such as pilot training and drone systems, has been criticized for resisting efforts to share. But in a surprise move in July it offered to share the airwaves it dominates in the slice of frequencies from 1755 MHz to 1780 MHz.
On Monday, the roadmap to this goal emerged, thanks an agreement with the National Association of Broadcasters that would move military systems to another slice of frequencies, which would be shared with remote news gathering operations often used in emergencies.
"In July, we knew that the Department of Defense had a plan to move (from the 1755-1780 MHz band) and now it has a place to go," Rick Kaplan, NAB's executive vice president for strategic planning, said in an interview. "It was sort of a surprise. I'm happy we were able to work together."
The agreement gained the endorsement of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which oversees federal spectrum. The Federal Communications Commission plans to auction off the airwaves.
"It has been a long and bumpy road," said the Senate Commerce Committee's top Republican, Senator John Thune of South Dakota.
"I am happy that the administration has listened to the bipartisan calls from Congress to grow our economy by freeing up these valuable airwaves, while addressing our military's needs."
The FCC, with NTIA's help, is preparing for several auctions of airwaves in coming years, including one that would sell off chunks of federally controlled spectrum.
The FCC is now gathering public input on various proposals for how it should auction the airwaves to the private sector, including on the Pentagon's new plan, which the agency estimated would carry relocation costs of about $3.5 billion.
Ultimately, the auctions would raise funds that could reimburse the Defense Department, as well as help fund a new $7 billion first-responder network, FirstNet, and contribute to the national coffers at the Treasury.
To increase the value of the auctions, the wireless industry and some lawmakers have urged the FCC to pair up the auction of the cleared 2155-2180 MHz slice of spectrum with the valuable 1755-1780 MHz band occupied by military systems.
Congress has required the FCC to auction off the 2155-2180 MHz band by February 2015.
"We are hopeful that the 1755-1780 MHz band is ready in time to pair with 2155-2180 MHz band, as the industry has long sought," said Scott Bergmann, vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA-The Wireless Association.
"Pairing these bands will maximize their value to industry and consumers alike, and generate significant revenue for the U.S. Treasury."
(Reporting by Alina Selyukh. Editing by Andre Grenon)