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Should the Federal Government Open a Spectrum Leasing Agency?

One nonprofit thinks the U.S. General Services Administration’s handling of surplus real estate could serve as a model to release more wireless spectrum into the marketplace.

A nonprofit technology research and education organization believes the federal government should establish an agency to rent its spare wireless spectrum to the private sector.

The Technology Policy Institute envisions a Government Spectrum Ownership Corporation (GSOC) that could manage the excess wireless spectrum allotted to federal agencies. The GSOC would lease the spectrum out much in the same way as the Government Services Administration (GSA) does with federal real estate and office space. If adopted, the concept could potentially turn a profit for the agencies and give wireless providers and other parties access to more spectrum.

The Institute shared its idea in response to a Notice of Request for Information filed by the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on February 14. The OSTP was requesting input on various approaches that could give federal agencies and departments more incentive to share or relinquish spectrum.

Thomas Lenard, president of the Technology Policy Institute, told Government Technology that the difficulty in getting federal agencies to release spectrum is because they typically aren’t looking to generate profit. So there’s no real motive for them to act.

A spectrum shortage has been discussed over the last several years in the U.S. And as demand for wireless broadband continues to grow, those harboring unused portions of spectrum have come under fire to release it.

Wireless broadband transmissions work in a similar manner to radio station broadcasts. No two stations transmit over the same frequency spectrum at the same time in the same area, because if they did, their signals would interfere with each other. The same principle applies with mobile devices. Carriers can’t overlap signals, so that’s why they need as much open frequency as possible.

The Federal Communications Commission is the gatekeeper for what frequencies of spectrum can be used. For wireless carriers, the FCC has allocated spectrum between 700 MHz and 2.6 GHz, but most of this is now accounted for, which is an issue for a provider that wants to expand its capacity.

CTIA – The Wireless Association, which represents the carriers, declined to speak with Government Technology on the validity of the GSOC concept. But the organization filed its own comments with the OSTP on spectrum allocation. CTIA favors more funding for research and development activities related to spectrum sharing and increased incentives for agencies to use spectrum more efficiently. 

Lenard explained that spectrum allotted to federal agencies is “probably the largest source” of underutilized frequencies that exists, with many only using a portion of what they have available.

It won’t be easy to convince the feds to let go of their extra bandwidth, however. Lenard added that people have talked about agencies selling off excess spectrum in the past, with little success.

“The problem with that is, the agencies don’t really have any real guarantee, and they probably have a lot of reason to believe that if they get a windfall gain – in terms of selling surplus spectrum they have – that appropriators will take it out of their operating budgets in a different way,” Lenard said. “So they really won’t end up ahead, and it diminishes the incentive to free-up spectrum.”

Lenard hopes the GSOC idea might be a way to make spectrum leasing more attractive and practical for agencies.

“I think government agencies that make decisions on office space and real estate of various kinds do take into account the price of that real estate in their budgeting decisions, and they do try to economize,” Lenard said. “The model seems to work with real estate in the GSA, so it seems to me it’s worth trying with spectrum.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.