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US government officially begins work on IIC for 5G

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is the US Commerce Department agency that helps to manage the spectrum holdings of federal users ranging from NASA to the US Department of Defense (DoD). And the agency just announced it will begin implementing Incumbent Informing Capability (IIC) technology for 5G spectrum.

"NTIA's Office of Spectrum Management has established an IIC Project Team to work with DoD in the exploration of this capability," wrote Charles Cooper, associate administrator of the NTIA's Office of Spectrum Management, in a post to the agency's website. "This new approach could standardize the spectrum sharing model and be incorporated in other bands that support such scheduling. This should decrease the amount of time needed to repurpose additional bands, because engineering and policy requirements are already defined and could be simply replicated."

Although the effort appears to be in very early stages, it has far-reaching ramifications. It could release vast amounts of spectrum for 5G operators like Verizon and AT&T, but it could also create the possibility that US military commanders and others could cut into commercial 5G network capacity any time they want to.

"What if federal spectrum could be shared in some instances where agencies use it only episodically or in limited areas?" wrote NTIA's Cooper. "The IIC concept is a time- and location-based spectrum sharing approach that would enable DoD and other federal spectrum users to submit information, reliably and securely, about when and where they would be employing certain frequencies. This scheduling information would inform a spectrum coordination system (SCS), in conjunction with advanced computer databases, allowing 5G commercial network providers to adjust operations in real time and avoid harmful interference. The goal is to enable efficient, secure and reliable spectrum sharing between new commercial networks and the incumbent federal systems."

Cooper said IIC technology builds on the spectrum-sharing mechanisms developed for the 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band. That's noteworthy considering there's a growing debate over the ultimate effectiveness of sharing in the CBRS band. Although officials from the CBRS Alliance argue that everyone in the industry is on the same page, there's a growing rift between two companies – Federated Wireless and Google – that handle CBRS spectrum sharing operations.

Specifically, Google officials have suggested that the Environmental Sensing Capability (ESC) networks designed to facilitate CBRS spectrum sharing aren't ideal. But Federated CTO Kurt Schaubach recently wrote that "Google is having massive problems with the sections of their ESC network that they have only recently deployed, so we believe that's the root cause of their objection."

In a statement following the NTIA's announcement, Federated voiced support for the move. "We look forward to working with the federal agencies on the Incumbent Informing Capability (IIC)," said Jennifer McCarthy, VP of legal advocacy for Federated, in a statement. "A similar approach was considered for CBRS nearly six years ago. However, at the time it was deemed not practical given concerns about automation and security. Given the significant progress made through the public-private partnership that built the CBRS sharing framework and our track record of building successful sharing solutions, we are confident that together we can help design and implement the IIC."

Regardless, the announcement by the NTIA – which is officially the "Executive Branch agency that is principally responsible by law for advising the President on telecommunications and information policy issues" – comes at an interesting time.

First, the agency has run through a host of directors during President Trump's term; NTIA acting director Adam Candeub has reportedly left that position in recent days to take a job in the Justice Department. "When we heard the news [of Candeub's departure] our initial reaction was that he resigned so that the Trump administration could claim that it had broken all records in naming the greatest number of acting NTIA administrators," wrote the analysts at New Street Research in a recent note to investors.

But the NTIA isn't acting alone on the IIC issue.

For example, the DoD recently outlined its new "Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy" that specifically calls for the US military to take over any spectrum band any time.

And, according to a publication that covers the military, the DoD's Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is now leading three different efforts on spectrum sharing to some degree.

Finally, it's worth noting that President Trump reportedly continues to stuff various government agencies with his supporters. Most recently, the DoD named eight new members to its Defense Policy Board, including Trump loyalist and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich has been a vocal supporter of a plan partially tied to startup Rivada Networks that calls on the DoD to offer its spectrum on a wholesale basis for 5G.

It's probably no surprise that the US wireless industry is largely opposed to an IIC function that would give DoD commanders control over valuable 5G spectrum resources.

"This approach is ineffective for the shared use of spectrum between federal operations and commercial terrestrial wireless operations and should be rejected," T-Mobile wrote to the FCC about the NTIA's IIC proposal, explaining that "carriers require reliable and predictable access to spectrum to deliver the high-quality service that businesses and consumers need and have come to expect from wireless carriers. Accordingly, the commission should not prescribe the use of a sensing or notification-based mechanism to coordinate federal and nonfederal operations."

Instead, T-Mobile and others have argued for exclusive usage of spectrum rather than sharing it.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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