US military goes all-in on spectrum sharing

The US Department of Defense issued a new spectrum strategy that contemplates sharing its spectrum with 5G operators instead of providing it for commercial auctions.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

October 29, 2020

8 Min Read
US military goes all-in on spectrum sharing

The US Department of Defense (DoD) on Thursday announced a new spectrum-sharing initiative that could have significant implications for 5G providers around the globe.

The US military said it plans to share spectrum with commercial interests on a widespread basis. But the details were lacking in several areas including how that might work, which bands might be released for sharing, and how much it might cost 5G operators to access that spectrum.

The DoD is one of the largest owners of US spectrum and uses a wide range of spectrum bands. The 5G industry is clamoring for the government to allocate more spectrum, including spectrum from the US military, for commercial uses.

Pentagon officials today said that their new initiative will involve making sure that US soldiers can conduct communications in any spectrum band, domestically and internationally, whether or not the spectrum used has been allocated to federal users.

"We cannot expect military success in any domain if we fail to take bold action to ensure that the United States and its allies have freedom to act in the spectrum. Implementing the EMS [Electromagnetic Spectrum] Superiority Strategy enables us to take that bold action so we are able to dominate the spectrum in all domains and, if challenged, win against our enemies," said Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a DoD release. Hyten is the US official charged with implementing the DoD's new initiative.

DSS goes to war

The DoD outlined its new "Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy" in a 28-page document that details both how the US military might make use of spectrum for its own operations as well as how it might share spectrum with commercial users.

"The Department seeks to maintain military overmatch against its adversaries while sharing the spectrum with commercial partners," according to the document. "Increased adversary competition and commercial congestion drives the need to develop new capabilities, new techniques and better integration within DoD and with its partners to enhance spectrum efficiency, maximize spectrum compatibility and ensure EMS superiority."

Added the DoD: "The Department recognizes the importance of US wireless leadership to the nation's economic prosperity, and 5G technologies mark a critical pivot for spectrum policy, technology innovation and national security. The traditional model of static frequency allocation is not sufficient, and a new model is needed to address the growing demand for access to an increasingly congested and constrained EMS."

The DoD said it would look to Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) technology to implement that kind of spectrum sharing. Network operators including AT&T and Verizon have recently launched DSS in order to transmit 5G signals in the same band as 4G signals.

Senior DoD officials hosted a press conference Thursday to discuss their initiative. As with most such events, the officials spoke "on background," which means they wanted to advance their agenda, but avoid being directly quoted or identified. They explained that the initiative reflects the fact that wireless communications are fundamentally important to the US military, and that the military's current approach to spectrum – where some is allocated to federal users and other spectrum is exclusively reserved for commercial interests – couldn't work in the future. They made it clear that the military ultimately needs access to all spectrum bands, regardless of how they're allocated.

But the officials also acknowledged that their proposal would take time and effort to implement, and they said they would work with government agencies including the NTIA (which oversees the federal use of spectrum) as well as the FCC (which oversees the commercial allocation of spectrum) as they move forward. Internationally, they said they're already working with the "five eyes" allies of the US (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK) and would also interact with NATO on the effort.

An RFI for spectrum leasing

The DoD's announcement builds on a Request for Information issued in September that asks "How could DoD own and operate 5G networks for its domestic operations?" That language sparked concerns that the US government was planning some kind of "nationalized" 5G network, but a Pentagon spokesperson clarified this week that "DoD has no plans to own and operate a nationwide 5G network. However, as the RFI asked, DoD is exploring the idea of owning and operating a 5G network on military bases. If, after assessment of the RFI inputs, it's determined DoD can own and operate 5G on our installations we will pursue funding through our normal budget process."

The DoD has already issued $600 million in contracts to build 5G networks at bases across the US, and more than $200 million in contracts for a 5G network in space.

In the Thursday press conference, the DoD officials also confirmed the agency is moving ahead with the agency's previously announced plans to release the 3.45-3.55GHz band for 5G via an FCC auction next year. That's noteworthy considering there were concerns that process had been halted since the RFI mentioned the same band of spectrum.

The DoD's RFI also considers the "leasing" of military spectrum for commercial uses. During their press conference, the senior DoD officials said the department has not embraced the concept of "leasing" spectrum because it would involve the complex process of commercial users paying the DoD for the ability to share spectrum.

However, a Pentagon spokesperson confirmed to Light Reading after the press conference that the DoD "will continue to pursue options to 'lease' spectrum with the goal of more efficient and effective use of spectrum." The spokesperson emphasized that the DoD would consider leasing as one of the ways to share spectrum and that the agency would use existing processes through NTIA and FCC to make more spectrum available for sharing with commercial interests.

The Rivada question

Although the DoD officials made no mention of the startup, Rivada has become synonymous with recent discussions around the DoD's use of spectrum. The company bid for the FirstNet contract that AT&T eventually won; FirstNet gives US public-safety users priority access to the 700MHz spectrum band in much the same way the DoD is envisioning providing the US military with access to spectrum.

However, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have worried that Rivada – which is financially involved with a number of close associates to President Trump – is working behind the scenes to somehow unfairly gain the contract to manage the DoD's spectrum resources.

Rivada officials have rejected those concerns, arguing instead that the "mobile cartel" of big US wireless network operators is attempting to stifle discussions about alternatives to spectrum auctions.

Rivada has worked for decades to build wireless networks for governments across the world – recent reports indicate the company is in discussions with the Jamaican government on some kind of project. When questioned by Light Reading whether Rivada has ever actually constructed any wireless networks anywhere in the world, the company said its efforts "have mostly been special purpose or as hoc networks for government agencies," though it did not provide any examples.

A potential spectrum seachange

Aside from the Rivada issue, there have been weeks of rumors that the DoD was preparing some kind of new approach to spectrum allocation. Indeed, DoD CIO Fred Moorefield reportedly suggested several weeks ago that the agency could usher in the end of spectrum auctions in general.

"What the DoD is successfully doing is causing the sector to contemplate how to meet the needs of the DoD directly, without going through NTIA or the FCC," wrote the financial analysts at New Street Research in a report issued this weekend, prior to the DoD's announcement Thursday. "We think that trend will continue. The old process in which NTIA identifies government frequencies to be transitioned to the private sector and the FCC auctions them off has been challenged in the last few years and that challenge is likely to continue. Congress and the FCC have already set the precedent of allowing incumbents to use their leverage to derive financial benefits in the incentive and C-band auctions. So it may have been inevitable that the biggest incumbent with the most leverage would eventually look for its own set of benefits in terms of authority over and control of the process."

The New Street analysts added: "Carriers are indifferent as to whom they write a check – they have seen it in their collective interest to support the FCC's traditional and central role in the process so far. It is by no means certain they will continue to do so if they believe DoD is offering a more direct route to accessing significant chunks of spectrum without the added costs of transparency and, potentially, new competition."

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

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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