No immediate windfall for industry in Pentagon spectrum plan

If you thought the Feb. 20 release of the Pentagon’s spectrum strategy signaled the beginning of a massive shift of communications bandwidth from the military to the wireless industry, think again.

While the strategy leaves the door open to a mix of options for the Defense Department to cooperate more closely with private industry on access to critical communications spectrum, ranging from compression to sharing and vacating certain areas of spectrum, Pentagon Chief Information Officer Teri Takai made it clear that changes to the military’s spectrum footprint will not happen overnight.

“Certainly while we’re trying to meet commercial need, what gets lost is our growing need for spectrum,” Takai told reporters at the Pentagon. “The spectrum future laid out in the strategy is bold. The process will be intense, and by its very nature, iterative. Because DOD systems are designed to operate for decades, development and installation of spectrum-efficient technology for military use takes years.”

The Pentagon now finds itself trying to manage a long-term, yet delicate, balancing act. It must find a way to protect its own valid need for more communications spectrum while also demonstrating tangible support for the president’s policy directive of making 500 megahertz of government-controlled spectrum available to the private sector by 2020. But with each passing year, new technologies lead to new military capabilities that demand more and more spectrum.


“In the 1990s, we used to have 90 MHz of … actual bandwidth that was used for approximately 12,000 troops,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Wheeler, deputy CIO for command, control, communications and computers and information infrastructure. “In today’s time frame, we’re looking at 305 MHz for 3,500 troops.”

DOD currently operates in most government exclusive spectrum bands as well as in many shared spectrum bands. But the movement toward what is known as network-centric warfare — the deployment and integration of a wide variety of wireless devices, from communications and surveillance systems to precision munitions, radars and major weapons platforms, such as advanced fighter jets and unmanned drones — has significantly increased the Pentagon’s appetite for bandwidth. And in many instances, it’s the same bandwidth that industry would like to use to offer new commercial services.

According to a recent mobile data traffic forecast by Cisco, worldwide mobile data traffic will increase 18-fold during the next five years, reaching 10.8 exabytes per month — or an annual run rate of 130 exabytes — by 2016. That’s the equivalent of the amount of data that can be stored on 33 billion DVDs.

“This mobile data traffic increase represents a compound annual growth rate of 78 percent spanning the forecast period,” states the Cisco forecast, released Feb. 14. “The incremental amount of traffic being added to the mobile Internet between 2015 and 2016 alone is approximately three times the estimated size of the entire mobile Internet in 2012.”

That’s bad news for a wireless industry desperate to obtain enough communications spectrum to support the explosion in demand. But it’s equally bad news for a DOD that must protect its access to critical bandwidth in order to support future war-fighting capabilities and training.


“For instance, we train our pilots in the U.S., and we are very heavily spectrum dependent in order to be able to do that training,” Takai said. Commercial interference in the 1755 MHz to 1850 MHz band used by the Pentagon to conduct such training can force the department to limit training.

DOD relies on the shared 1755 MHz to 1850 MHz frequency band for tracking, telemetry, and control of space systems, transportable tactical radio relay communications, air combat training, precision-guided munitions systems, fixed radio relay communications, and mobile video control links. The department also operates other systems in this band that are critical to global operations, test and training functions.

“We are not certainly making the assumption that DOD will have to make do with less spectrum,” Takai said. “In fact, I think as Gen. Wheeler outlined, one of the challenges that we have is our growing need for spectrum and how do we fit our need with the growing need on the commercial industry.”

“We cannot shift in a short time frame,” Takai continued. “We just have too much equipment and too much capability that really has to be transitioned in a very thoughtful way so as not to impose a major burden on budgets and a major burden on the taxpayers.”

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