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Commentary: Spectrum sharing a way to keep Philly on cutting edge

With the new administration's cabinet taking shape and Congress already passing pro-open internet legislation such as the MOBILE Now Act, which promotes more wireless spectrum availability, "What's next?" is on the minds of many.

With the new administration's cabinet taking shape and Congress already passing pro-open internet legislation such as the MOBILE Now Act, which promotes more wireless spectrum availability, "What's next?" is on the minds of many.

One of the few things we can be sure of is that technological advancements and the convergence of tech and so many industries will continue at a breakneck pace. Philadelphia is consistently on the cutting edge. Its "Smart City Challenge" aims to build a wireless network that will connect users and the city's operations - such as meter reading, transportation analytics, and public safety surveillance - through the Internet of Things (IoT).

Modern connected technologies run on spectrum, the invisible airwaves that connect wireless devices, and as the exciting IoT develops, demand for spectrum resources will outpace supply. Analysts predict more than 350 megahertz of new licensed spectrum is needed by 2019 to support current growth projections in mobile needs driven in large part by IoT technologies.

While the U.S. government is working to free up additional spectrum assets, through the ongoing incentive auction and the Spectrum Frontiers proceeding, supply challenges will persist. But solutions are in sight, and one promising and practical remedy will be spectrum sharing.

For this concept to be viable, it must increase the overall value and usage of a spectrum band. To this end, enabling collaboration will create an approach in which entities with different areas of expertise can extract additional value from underutilized spectrum for the broader good. For example, my research has found that the proposed combination of a three-tier priority system with wireless network virtualization technology holds promise of creating a flexible modern spectrum solution in the 3.5 gigahertz spectrum band, which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened up to experimental sharing earlier this year. This was deemed a possible "innovation band," which is promising when considering accommodating the future of many more IoT devices.

The FCC has a proposal before it in which the spirit of such cooperative spectrum concepts can be put into practice. The spectrum band in question is the 1675-1680 MHz band, which is currently held by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Yet its activities take place at the edge of the spectrum and comprise only a miniscule amount of bandwidth.

One interested party, Ligado Networks, has submitted a proposal to the FCC to share the spectrum band with NOAA - not to change the data being transmitted, but to distribute the data more efficiently and effectively. The proposal has slowed because of pushback from NOAA and some members of the weather enterprise, who currently receive data for free, citing the threat of interference to the activities of NOAA's latest weather satellite, the GOES-R, which was launched just before Thanksgiving.

However, evidence suggests that negotiation could move the parties to a win-win outcome. Ligado Networks has offered to establish protection zones around NOAA facilities to manage interference and has volunteered a requirement to augment NOAA data distribution with content-delivery network (CDN). A CDN would provide access to NOAA's information for many more universities and public partners than currently use it. These conditions could be a required provision for any spectrum auction winner that wants to share NOAA's spectrum.

NOAA is in the enviable position of not having to value its assets like a private sector actor, meaning that unless the government demands it, NOAA does not need to share its spectrum. However, not sharing comes at a cost for the larger American economy, which would be limited in realizing the potential for a trillion-dollar IoT industry that benefits all participants.

NOAA is not alone in its possessive approach to its spectrum holdings; many federal agencies also hold valuable spectrum resources that they received for free from government when they were established that could be repurposed for commercial uses. But because these agencies have no deployment requirements and never had to pay for the spectrum, they often don't operate it in a way that best manages their valuable resource. Neither do they have the incentive to support sharing initiatives.

The need to repurpose spectrum for innovation and economic growth has justified a number of countries to commandeer spectrum back from such agencies, or at least to impose usage charges. Neither demand is being made of NOAA. Rather, by sharing its spectrum, NOAA can continue its vital weather monitoring without disruption or diminished capacity; share its weather data with even more parties; and allow the IoT economy to grow. Weather data is used in agriculture, logistics, travel, public utilities, and countless other industries that are on the cusp of maximizing technology to serve industry and consumers.

It's time to give spectrum sharing a try. It would help cities like Philadelphia and the country at large to stay at the forefront of ushering in the growing demands on the IoT, and meet growing consumer demands.

Marcela M. Gomez is a Ph.D. candidate in the telecommunications program of the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.