Saturday, February 22, 2014

DoD treats Spectrum as Territory

The U.S. Department of Defense released a spectrum strategy document on Thursday (press release, pdf). I’ll leave discerning what (if anything) is actually new in it to the Pentagon watchers.

I was struck by the implications of the language used: the DoD conceives of spectrum as a place. Given that military success often seems to be framed as controlling or denying territory, this is not an auspicious starting point for spectrum sharing – which is about wireless system coexistence in many intangible dimensions, rather than all-or-nothing control of territory.

A quick look at the language of the text leaves no doubt that spectrum is seen as a field ("an expanse of open or cleared ground") of battle:
“Electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) access is a prerequisite for modern military operations.”
“… adversaries [are developing] technologies that significantly reduce the ability of DoD to access the spectrum and conduct military operations.”
“DoD recognizes that the electromagnetic environment (EME) will be increasingly congested and contested wherever military operations occur.”
Like air, space, land, maritime, and cyberspace domains, military forces maneuver within the [electromagnetic spectrum] to gain tactical, operational, and strategic advantages.”
“DoD operations – in the air, on land, on and under the sea, in space, and in cyberspace – are fundamentally dependent on our use and control of the electromagnetic spectrum.”
The underlying metaphor is that spectrum is a place, and that radio operation requires access to, and control of, that place. In the military context, especially, that evokes images of territorial dominance and exclusion.

However, radios coexist in much more complex and flexible ways than soldiers and civilians on a battlefield. To take a simple example, spread-spectrum technology allows a number of radio systems to operate concurrently in the same time, frequency and geographic area, each looking to the other like background noise.

Spectrum-as-place is just a metaphor and as I argued in DySPAN papers in 2007 (IEEE, SSRN) and 2008 (IEEE, SSRN) not the only or even the best one.

The ostensible meaning of the DoD strategy document would be unchanged if the spectrum-as-place language were replaced by the language of spectrum-as-radio-operation, e.g. replacing “to access spectrum” by “to use radios.” (See also my 2009 post No more S-word).

However, the subliminal guidance to DoD staff would be very different if this change were made, particularly when it comes to radio coexistence: radio operation may be a much more productive way of talking about “spectrum sharing” for soldiers to whom sharing a battlefield with someone not under their control is likely to be a rather uncomfortable notion.

(Left as an exercise for the reader: Doing a similar analysis for DoD doctrine about cyberspace, which is really not very spatial either… )

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