Thursday, August 04, 2011

No Common Authority: Why spectrum sharing across the Fed/non-Fed boundary is a bad idea

The ISART conference this year was about sharing in the radar bands, in line with the Administration’s efforts to encourage frequency sharing between Federal and non-Federal (e.g. commercial and civilian) users (NTIA Fast Track Evaluation PDF, FCC proceeding ET docket 10-123).

While it’s true that the NTIA has studied the feasibility of reallocating Federal Government spectrum, or relocating Federal Government systems, the current political focus is on “spectrum sharing” (cf. my post Spectrum Sharing: Not really sharing, and not just spectrum) – and Federal/non-Federal sharing is the hardest possible problem.

Federal/non-Federal sharing is hard for many reasons, notably the chasm between the goals and incentives between the two groups, and thus a profound lack of trust. I’m going to focus here, though, on a seemingly technical but profound problem: the lack of a common authority that can resolve conflicts.

Follow-up post

Sharing a resource between parties entails an agreement about what the asset is, how it should be apportioned, and what happens when something goes wrong. Agreements can be made without a venue where disputes can be resolved, but they’re risky and infrequent; imagine how many contracts would be signed if there were no rule of law, and no courts. As the OECD Policy Framework for Investment notes: “The ability to make and enforce contracts and resolve disputes is fundamental if markets are to function properly.”

The most reliable and straightforward way to ensure dispute resolution is a common authority that both parties recognize and are subject to. The catch is that no such authority exists for disputes between Federal and non-Federal radio operators.

Federal spectrum is nominally managed by the NTIA, an agency of the Department of Commerce, though in fact the real decisions are jointly made by the Federal departments and agencies in the IRAC. In the end, though, everyone answers to the President of the United States (aka POTUS). On the other hand, non-Federal spectrum is managed by the FCC, an independent agency whose Commissioners are appointed by the President, but who not answerable to him. As this chart shows, there is no common authority between Federal and non-Federal radio operations. (It’s schematic in the extreme; green boxes are devices/users, blue boxes are authorities. For example, charting public safety operations and light-licensed assignments are left as an exercise for the reader.)
A partial view of devices, operators and authorities in US radio operations. Click for full-size image.

Fostering trust and enforcing contracts is easiest if parties are in the same organization. The closer parties are to each other (e.g. as measured by nearest common ancestor metrics, cf. graph theory and computer science), the easier sharing will be.

Apportioning operating rights and resolving disputes (that’s what I take “sharing” to mean) is easiest when parties have a close common authority, and they’re operating the same service. For example, Verizon bears the burden of making sure all its cellphone customers efficiently share its licensed channels. Sharing between Verizon and AT&T is also pretty straightforward, because they run similar services and are in the same industry. Similarly, microwave and satellite ground stations can share pretty well when they’re all registered with the same frequency coordinator, Comsearch in this example. On the Federal side, it’s straightforward for the Navy to coordinate all its radio operations, and for all the Armed Services to coexist; in the end they all report to the Secretary of the Department of Defense (DoD).

It gets harder as the closest common authority moves up the hierarchy. On the non-Federal side, disputes between (say) Verizon and a microwave operator have to be resolved by the FCC, and on the Federal side, the IRAC has to umpire arguments between (say) the Army and the FBI, or the FBI and NOAA.

Note that even though everyone on the non-Federal side is subject to FCC jurisdiction, disputes over unlicensed operation are more difficult to resolve, since there is no authority that controls all those devices; there is nobody for Verizon, say, to negotiate with if it would like to address transmissions by unlicensed devices.

The really tough case occurs when there is no common authority at all, e.g. between a non-Federal and a Federal service. There is no institution that both the FCC and POTUS are answerable to.

The most difficult situation of all arises when one combines unlicensed with Federal/non-Federal sharing, such as an unlicensed hotspot operating in frequencies assigned to Naval radar. Ironically, this is just the case that seems to be emerging poster child for sharing: allowing light-licensed wireless internet service providers (WISPs) to operate in the 3550-3650 MHz band identified in NTIA’s Fast Track evaluation (PDF); see e.g. filings by WISPA and Motorola.


It seems to me that efforts to encourage frequency sharing between Federal (e.g. military) and non-Federal (e.g. commercial) users are premature at best, and misguided at worst. Federal/non-Federal sharing is the hardest possible case, because of widely divergent goals and incentives, lack of trust, and the absence of a venue to resolve disputes. Government efforts are better focused on more tractable cases: sharing within administrative domains, and then between parties with a close common authority.

Commercial interests are clamoring today for more radio allocations, but Federal users are not far behind. Rather than trying to force sharing between them across a chasm of difference, the Administration should minimize the obstacles to sharing within each domain. A solid basis already exists for commercial/commercial sharing thanks to the FCC’s Secondary Market order (see the discussion in paras 38-41 of the Notice of Inquiry in ET Docket 10-237 PDF), and the Commission should ignore calls for a transfer of Federal allocations to non-Federal use until companies have shown they’ve exhausted these possibilities. The top priority should be to prepare the way for intensive sharing between Federal agencies. Adequate allocations and hands-off management have given these players a relatively easy go until recently. Crunch time is coming.

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