Negotiating Access to the Electromagnetic Spectrum's 'Sweet Spot'

Millions of people use the electromagnetic waves of energy that make up the spectrum when they watch television, use a microwave or drive their new collision-avoidance cars, while the Pentagon uses it for military preparations.

by Maggie Ybarra, McClatchy Washington Bureau / May 16, 2016
FOLSOM,Calif. (Feb. 4, 2011) - Congresswoman Doris Matsui visited the Folsom dam and spillway construction here on February 3, 2011. Updating the Congresswoman on the projects were key personnel from both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District and the Bureau of Reclamation. flickr/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

(TNS) -- Sacramento U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui finds herself in the middle of a tug of war over an invisible commodity that allows military officials to navigate the fog of war and tech-savvy teenagers to surf the Internet.

That commodity, known as electromagnetic spectrum, is worth billions of dollars and has sparked a modern-day gold rush. Millions of people use the waves of energy that make up the spectrum when they watch digital television, heat dinner in the microwave or drive their new collision-avoidance cars, while the Pentagon uses it for military preparations.

Drones, missiles and the air-to-ground communications all depend on spectrum. Military officials also use large amounts of spectrum while conducting test flights at training ranges such as the one at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California.

When too much information is trying to flow across the spectrum, computers slow down, video buffers and cell calls drop.

“There’s only a finite amount of spectrum,” said Geoffrey Blake, a California Institute of Technology professor of cosmochemistry, the specialized study of the chemical composition of matter throughout the universe.

“We’re not going to be able to stuff any more into it than is physically possible, so we’re going to be more flexible about how we actually use the real space that’s available,” he said.

And everyone wants a piece of what Tim Chalfant described as “sweet spot” spectrum: the portion that allows communication devices to send signals through walls and for long distances using low power.

“I equate it to beachfront real estate in Southern California,” said Chalfant, the chief of the aircraft instrumentation division at Edwards Air Force Base. “Everyone wants to live on the beach, and the beach is crowded. So now instead of knocking people out of the beach, we have to learn to share that beach with all the users.”

For the past four years, Matsui has been on the front lines of negotiations with military officials and other government agencies for access to those energy waves. Her intricate conversations with officials paved the way for the Federal Communications Commission to sell a portion of the government’s spectrum reserves to broadband companies through an auction process. President Barack Obama called on federal agencies in 2010 to make way for “the wireless broadband revolution” and free up 500 megahertz of federal spectrum by 2020.

Spectrum auctions in 2014 and 2015 netted the federal government more than $46 billion. More than $4 billion of that came from companies seeking to provide a variety of services in California.

Some of the auction proceeds were used to create FirstNet, an independent organization tasked with creating a nationwide wireless emergency broadband network that will allow emergency responders from various agencies to interact with one another on a single network.

Matsui described the auctioning of spectrum as a “huge success,” and she credited it to another Californian, Teri Takai, who was the Defense Department’s top technology officer, known as the chief information officer, until she resigned in early 2014. Takai served in a similar role for the state of California from 2007 to 2010.

Matsui called Takai crucial to the effort to put some of the military’s vast horde of broadband spectrum on the block. “She understood what we wanted to do,” Matsui said, and Takai won the agreement of other Pentagon officials, something Matsui called “really quite remarkable.”

Takai now sits on the board of FirstNet, for which she’s paid $160,000 a year. Company documents show Takai has been a board member since August 2012. However, she did not get paid for being a FirstNet board member while she was employed by the Defense Department, the documents say.

Now Matsui and other members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce are focusing on their next big project: persuading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to let go of some of its spectrum reserves.

The target is the 1675-1680 megahertz band, which NOAA uses to communicate with balloons and satellites that help detect dangerous weather conditions.

Winning approval of that sale, however, may prove more difficult than persuading Defense Department officials to part with some of their precious energy waves.

Lawrence Strickling, the government’s top technology official, told the Energy and Commerce Committee that more research needs to be conducted before he’ll go along with an auction of NOAA frequencies.

“While some studies have been performed, NOAA needs to undertake additional studies to determine whether and how the 1675-1680 MHz band can be shared between wireless broadband users and the incumbent federal systems that will continue to operate in it,” Strickling said in an April letter to lawmakers.

“In particular,” he wrote, “non-federal users of the NOAA meteorological satellite data must be better identified and characterized in order to determine potential operational impacts and alternatives.”

Matsui remains optimistic that eventually NOAA will agree to the sale. She said the agency’s equipment was “pretty obsolete” and that technological advances would make it possible for it to share the spectrum with private interests.

“We are following up with them to see what we can do to work through this process, and I believe we can do that,” she said.

Other experts question the idea of stripping federal agencies of their spectrum. One, Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute research center near Washington, warns that selling spectrum to private interests could create a national security problem later.

“We’re living in a period of unprecedented technological change, and it’s anybody’s guess as to how much spectrum the government might need in the future,” he said. “There will be all sorts of software and other innovations that allow more and more information to be spread into the same amount of spectrum, but we don’t really know how much information we’re going to need or when the innovations will come along.”

Explaining the importance of spectrum to the general public hasn’t been easy, said Chalfant, the Edwards Air Force Base official. Even congressional representatives have a hard time understanding its value, he said.

“I remember one time we were briefing (the Defense Department) on our spectrum utilization, and we were briefing a congressional staffer and listening to his congressman talk about how he always thought megahertz was a French rental car company,” he said. “So that kind of gives the whole scenario of how much the general public understands about the electromagnetic spectrum.”

Matsui said communication between Congress and the military had improved throughout the negotiation process and now served as an example to other federal agencies of what a cooperative effort could achieve.

“We really did work with them and set up meetings and set up timelines, and I think they understood how successful it was for them, and we like the process moving forward,” she said. “So we’re using that as examples of what we can do.”

©2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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