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White House Advisers Tell Obama to Share Airwaves for Broadband

Federal agencies should share airwaves with commercial users to ease a shortage of frequencies and help meet surging demand from wireless smartphones and other mobile devices, a White House advisory panel said.

President Barack Obama should have U.S. agencies identify twice as much spectrum for shared use as he directed in a 2010 memorandum setting mobile-computing growth as a national priority, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said in a letter and report issued today.

Carriers led by Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S. wireless provider, and No. 2 AT&T Inc. have pushed the government to devote more airwaves to wireless high-speed Internet, or broadband, as they seek to handle data traffic that has more than doubled four years in a row.

Today’s recommendation signals a U.S. shift from granting companies exclusive use of airwaves vacated by federal agencies, and toward having frequency bands accommodate demands from multiple users.

Mobile carriers have said they prefer to have swaths of airwaves they control.

“Full ownership of the spectrum has proven over time to be the best model,” AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson said at June 1 conference. “Spectrum sharing models, it’s really hard for somebody like us to control network quality.”

Doubling Airwaves

Obama in 2010 pledged to almost double the airwaves available for wireless devices such as smartphones and tablet computers by making another 500 megahertz available over 10 years.

U.S. mobile providers are assigned 409.5 megahertz for commercial use, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association. Members of the Washington-based trade group include AT&T, Verizon Wireless, No. 3 carrier Sprint Nextel Corp. and the fourth-largest, T-Mobile USA Inc.

The 500-megahertz plan has been progressing slowly, and it can be prohibitively expensive to move federal agencies aside as relocation costs mount, the White House advisory council said in today’s report. It recommended the federal government find 1,000 megahertz for shared use.

As an example of possible ways to share, the report said some users could operate in airwaves and cease when primary, federal users begin to emit signals. In another example, devices can automatically switch to different airwaves when a higher priority use takes place, the report said. Or devices could use spectrum in one place that is reserved for government uses in other locations, the report said.

Defense Spectrum

Defense agencies are the largest users of federal spectrum, holding about 37 percent of airwaves assigned to U.S. users, the White House panel said in its report.

The advisory group issuing today’s report was appointed by the president to augment the science and technology advice available to him from inside the White House. Members include Google Inc. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt; Mark Gorenberg, a managing director of San Francisco-based investors Hummer Winblad Venture Partners; and Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft Corp.

Congress in February approved auctions of unused television airwaves for use by wireless services, another step aimed at alleviating the spectrum shortage. The Federal Communications Commission is working to devise auction rules.

Blair Levin, a former FCC official who’s now a fellow at the Washington-based policy group Aspen Institute, has said the auctions may reap 60-to-80 megahertz of airwaves, compared with 120 anticipated by the agency. Broadcasters can choose whether to sell their airwaves in the voluntary auction.

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