Repurposing Government Spectrum for Licensed Commercial Use: A Win-Win for Wireless Providers and Federal

Repurposing Government Spectrum for Licensed Commercial Use: A Win-Win for Wireless Providers and Federal Agencies

Executive Summary

The federal government is the United States’ largest spectrum user. This is no surprise given the multitude of federal missions, from defending the nation to air traffic control to everyday agency communications. Federal communications systems, however, often rely on decades-old wireless technologies, have limited capabilities, and are less spectrally efficient.

However, the demand for licensed spectrum to power Government commercial wireless networks keeps growing. While U.S. wireless providers have invested hundreds of billions to build more cell sites and more efficiently use their existing spectrum resources, more licensed spectrum is needed, particularly to unleash the full power of 5G networks and ensure a strong foundation for the 5G economy over the next decade.

At first blush, this may appear to create an intractable conflict between federal agencies and the commercial wireless industry. Fortunately, more than 15 years ago, policymakers identified a way to create win-win outcomes: transition federal spectrum to commercial wireless use while making federal users whole with comparable— and often enhanced—wireless systems so Government federal missions remain well served.

The Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act of 2004 created a forward-looking spectrum clearing and reallocation framework. This law was instrumental in converting several bands of spectrum previously used by federal agencies to commercial use, like the AWS-1 and AWS-3 bands, that were crucial in establishing U.S. 4G global leadership.

At the same time, federal agencies used revenues from these spectrum auctions to upgrade and modernize their communications systems. For instance, as part of the AWS-1 and AWS-3 auctions, the Spectrum Relocation Fund has already transferred nearly $4.6B to federal agencies to upgrade their systems using another spectrum— funding that enables transitions to modern, state-of-the-art digital systems, IP-based technologies, and fiber, thus improving communications efficiencies and capabilities.

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