Airwaves Deal With Pentagon Called Near by Broadcasters

U.S. broadcasters said they’re near an agreement to share frequencies with the Defense Department, a move that could help free airwaves for use by mobile providers led by Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. (T)

Broadcasters and the military “were able to arrive at a framework,” Rick Kaplan, an executive vice president with the National Association of Broadcasters, said in a news conference today. The trade group is “very confident” details will be resolved, he said.

The Pentagon will assign some of its functions to airwaves now used by broadcast television for live coverage of sporting events and emergencies, Kaplan said. The block cleared of defense functions can be added to frequencies to be offered for competitive auction by next year by the Federal Communications Commission.

“This arrangement allows the FCC to hold a successful auction while ensuring that local TV stations retain essential emergency news gathering spectrum,” Gordon Smith, president of the Washington-based broadcasters’ group, said in an e-mail.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which coordinates federal airwaves use, in a letter today proposed altering frequency assignments to accommodate the proposed changes. The letter to the FCC was signed by Karl Nebbia, as associate administrator at NTIA, which is a Commerce Department arm.

Spectrum Crunch

President Barack Obama has set a goal of almost doubling the airwaves available for wireless devices such as smartphones and tablet computers by making an additional 500 megahertz available over 10 years.

The Obama administration is seeking to avert what officials have called a “spectrum crunch” that would occur as wireless networks’ capacity fails to meet growing demand from smartphones and tablet computers such as Apple Inc.’s iPhone and iPad.

Wireless providers have pushed for access to the airwaves the Pentagon will free up, in the swath designated 1755-to-1780 megahertz. The airwaves work well with those now used for wireless devices, and other countries have designated that block for commercial purposes, Christopher Guttman-McCabe, executive vice president at CTIA-The Wireless Association, a mobile providers’ trade group, told lawmakers at a June hearing.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the Commerce Committee, said the letter from NTIA moves the U.S. “one step closer to maximizing auction revenues.” Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said the NTIA had produced a “roadmap” that “marks a critical step” toward auctioning airwaves.

‘Important Step’

The NTIA letter drew praise from the trade group representing U.S. mobile providers.

It is “an important step forward to ensuring the U.S. wireless industry has access to additional licensed spectrum to meet continued consumer demand,” Scott Bergmann, a vice president at the Washington-based CTIA-The Wireless Association, said in an e-mailed statement.

The Pentagon is pursuing “balanced approaches” to protect military operations while making airwaves available for others, said Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Damien Pickart, a Defense Department spokesman.

Defense systems in the airwaves include satellite-launch and orbit-control operations, electronic warfare and air-combat training, Teresa Takai, the Defense Department’s chief information officer, said at the June hearing in the U.S. House.

Replacement Airwaves

The military would need access to replacement airwaves, funding and time to make the changes requested, Takai said.

In a July letter, Takai said some functions could remain in the 1755-to-1780 swath on a shared basis with commercial users. Precision-guided munitions, microwave links and surveillance could move to new airwaves, Takai said.

The FCC has said it wants to auction the airwaves as early as September 2014. Bidders could include largest U.S. wireless provider Verizon, No. 2 AT&T, third-largest carrier Sprint Corp. (S) and fourth-largest T-Mobile US Inc. (TMUS)

The FCC also plans an airwaves sale to begin in January. Dish Network Corp. (DISH) has pledged to participate.

Federal agencies use much of the most valuable airwaves, Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, said at the June hearing.

“Federal agencies have a responsibility to ensure efficient use and maximum benefit of this scarce resource just as wireless companies do,” Eshoo said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Todd Shields in Washington at tshields3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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