Feds might share frequencies for commercial use, ease wireless spectrum crunch

U.S. government agencies could share airwaves with commercial wireless companies to help the mobile providers meet surging demand from smartphones, an Obama administration official said.

“Spectrum is a finite resource in growing demand, and we need to focus on new ways to maximize its use,” Lawrence Strickling, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a Commerce Department arm that advises the White House on airwaves use, said in a conference call.

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

The administration has set a goal of adding 500 megahertz of airwaves to almost double the amount available for commercial use. Strickling’s announcement concerned an airwaves band with 95 megahertz, on which more than 20 U.S. agencies including each branch of the military conduct operations on more than 3,100 frequencies. Uses include military radio, air-combat training control systems and precision-munitions guidance, the information administration said in an e-mailed statement.

Government users in some cases would switch to other frequencies, and some federal and commercial users would share them, Strickling said. He proposed discussions between U.S. agencies and industry.

CTIA-The Wireless Association, in a March 22 letter to Strickling, asked him to “swiftly reallocate” the band for use by mobile broadband, or high-speed wireless Internet service. The Washington-based trade group’s members include leading U.S. wireless provider Verizon Wireless, No. 2 AT&T Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp. and T-Mobile USA Inc.

Congress last month 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.

The CTIA last week asked the FCC to complete the auction by early 2014 and to turn airwaves over to wireless companies by May of that year.