Defense

June 19, 2013

Wireless spectrum essential to defense operations, official says

The Defense Department depends on the wireless spectrum for nearly all of its activities, the DOD chief information officer said in Washington, D.C., June 18.

Essentially, everything at the Defense Department is connected to the network, Teri Takai told attendees at a Washington Post forum.

In an effort to ensure commanders are fully informed of activities in and around the battle space, the department has moved beyond just wireless voice and data transmission, Takai said. Video now is part of many military platforms, she explained, and that is just one sign of the department’s growing need for wireless spectrum.

“The bulk of our training is done in the U.S.,” she said. “This isn’t just an international use of spectrum. We really are very heavily concentrated – in terms of the utilization of spectrum – around all of our [U.S.] bases.”

The department needs spectrum in the United States, Takai said. “We do 80 percent of our training here,” she noted. “The safety of our men and women overseas is really based on their … ability to train.”

The civilian market is increasingly reliant on wireless communications as well. Many countries, including the United States, already have more wireless connection points – phones, tablets, hotspots, etc. – than they have people, according to CTIA, one of the forum’s sponsors. As of December 2012, nearly 36 percent of U.S. households were wireless-only, compared to just 15.8 percent in 2007.

The explosive growth of wireless communications has resulted in a shortage of available spectrum for both federal and civilian uses. In response, President Barack Obama last week issued a memorandum establishing a spectrum policy team that will monitor and support spectrum-sharing technologies in concert with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. In the memo, federal agencies are tasked with finding ways to enhance spectrum efficiency and free up more spectrum for consumer services and applications.

Defense activities also are becoming heavily dependent on commercial wireless providers, Takai said, so the department naturally is concerned about its spectrum capacity.

Spectrum crowding already happens, said Mary Brown, Cisco Systems’ director of technology and spectrum policy, government affairs. “Anyone who tries to use their phone during the rush hour in a big city already begins to experience what life is going to be like if we don’t get to work on putting more spectrum out there,” she said. Dropped calls and slow or no data connections will become more common, she added.

As government and industry begin to investigate spectrum-sharing scenarios, several challenges emerge, Takai told the audience. Sharing can happen in a variety of ways, she said. For example, spectrum could be shared geographically by being assigned to federal agencies in high-density areas, but used by commercial entities in less-populated areas. Or, multiple users could share the same piece of spectrum at different times, Takai said.

To do that, she said, requires knowing who owns the spectrum, and when and where they’re using it.

“I think one of the challenges is there’s certainly opportunity for us to do spectrum-sharing in, for example, rural areas, where we don’t have the bases,” Takai said. “Unfortunately, those aren’t the areas where there’s the commercial demand.”

The next task is developing devices that can use the shared spectrum, she said.

The Defense Department will continue to seek out ways to operate while using the least possible amount of wireless spectrum, Takai said. “That’s a challenge, because historically, we have a lot of equipment that uses spectrum in a lot of different ways, so making a change isn’t something we can do overnight.”

But, DOD recognizes the need to balance national security with consumer needs, she said.

“Even though there may not be a financial incentive for us [to share spectrum], there is an operational incentive, because we have to weigh not only our responsibility to the nation, but also our operational responsibility,” Takai said. “I think it’s important from a national security standpoint to recognize that we have a certain amount of spectrum that we utilize which is exclusive to us from a national security and an interference perspective.”

 




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