Two giant government contractors announced a partnership that they said could free up as much as 50MHz of valuable 5G spectrum -- worth as much as $19 billion, according to the companies -- that today is being used mainly by the nation's air traffic control radar systems.
"This is a really large opportunity," said Rob Smith of Lockheed Martin.
To be clear, there are many obstacles facing Lockheed Martin and Raytheon in their corporate quest to develop a new air traffic control system for the United States that can free up the spectrum. Among those obstacles are competition from other companies hoping to win the contract for the project, technical obstacles in terms of handling sensitive systems for multiple government agencies, and the fact that the value of spectrum remains a moving target and could ultimately be well above or below the $19 billion figure.
Nonetheless, the announcement by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon that they want to pursue the opportunity at least signals that the companies believe there is opportunity for a successful outcome and a possible return on their investment, and that the obstacles to the program can be overcome.
Indeed, the program to free the spectrum is itself conspicuous in its ambition. Lockheed Martin and Raytheon basically want to rebuild the nation's air traffic control system so that it is more spectrally efficient. Doing so could release up to 50MHz of spectrum in the prime 1300MHz spectrum band -- a band that sits immediately next to the likes of 1700MHz and 1800MHz that is currently used by a variety of US wireless carriers.
"The consolidation effort will free up a tremendous amount of bandwidth that can be used to move America rapidly toward a 5G capability," the two companies said in a release.
The impetus to free up that spectrum stems from the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2015. That Act called on government agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to find ways to release spectrum they are using so that the spectrum can be auctioned to wireless network operators and others for other commercial uses.
In response to the Act, the FAA, the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched an initiative called SENSR to figure out how they might release spectrum for commercial uses. SENSR (Spectrum Efficient National Surveillance Radar) calls for replacing current air traffic control and surveillance radars with fewer, more advanced multi-use systems. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) already has allocated $71.5 million to the SENSR initiative to conduct the necessary research, engineering studies, economic analysis and planning involved with so many moving parts (already NOAA removed its high-resolution weather requirements from the SENSR program "in order to decrease program complexity and manage risk," according to the FAA).
The legislation at the heart of the SENSR program calls for the spectrum to be auctioned by 2024, and for the proceeds from the auction to be used to help pay for moving government users off the spectrum. However, executives from Lockheed Martin and Raytheon said they hope to make significant headway on the problem in the next two years so that there's a transition plan in place by 2021 or so.
Most of the details remain foggy. For example, Smith from Lockheed Martin said that the company would likely have to develop new technologies to meet the needs of all the stakeholders involved in the program. Further, the two companies acknowledged they would have to not only modernize US national airspace and radar but also "cyber-harden" the infrastructure around the technology and address emerging airspace threats like unmanned drones in urban areas.
Will carriers have an appetite for this?
Lockheed Martin and Raytheon executives said that they don't believe they will be alone in bidding for the government's SENSR project, but they declined to speculate on what other companies or entities might submit competing bids. An FAA representative didn't immediately respond to questions about other, competing bids. It's also unclear when the SENSR team might award a contract for the effort; the initiative has been issuing Requests for Information (RFIs) on the topic for two years now.
Further, it's difficult to ascertain exactly how much interest 50MHz of 1300MHz spectrum might generate from wireless network operators and other players for 5G or other commercial services. The FCC is already planning to conduct a series of high-band spectrum auctions this year, and then could auction up to 75MHz of the 3.5GHz CBRS band next year, while the C Band Alliance is working to free up around 200MHz of spectrum between 3.7GHz and 4.2GHz. Releasing that much spectrum could potentially satiate even the hungriest wireless players.
Nonetheless, a SENSR program proposal from Lockheed Martin and Raytheon -- two massive technology companies that have deep ties into the US government -- could signal movement on the topic, and that likely will come as welcome news to the wireless industry.