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Defense Spectrum Community Aims for National Strategy

July 1, 2014
By George I. Seffers
E-mail About the Author

The concept calls for an overhaul of spectrum management policies and legislation.

  • DARPA’s Advanced Radio Frequency Mapping (RadioMap) program seeks to provide real-time awareness of radio spectrum use across frequency, geography and time.
     DARPA’s Advanced Radio Frequency Mapping (RadioMap) program seeks to provide real-time awareness of radio spectrum use across frequency, geography and time.
  • Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data, such as the video feeds provided by unmanned aerial vehicles, requires a lot of bandwidth, adding to the Defense Department’s spectrum management challenge.
     Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data, such as the video feeds provided by unmanned aerial vehicles, requires a lot of bandwidth, adding to the Defense Department’s spectrum management challenge.
  • The Defense Department continually pushes data closer to the tactical edge to provide warfighters at every level the situational awareness needed to complete the mission. Smart radios and a host of other technologies promise to use spectrum more efficiently.
     The Defense Department continually pushes data closer to the tactical edge to provide warfighters at every level the situational awareness needed to complete the mission. Smart radios and a host of other technologies promise to use spectrum more efficiently.

U.S. Defense Department officials intend to complete a departmentwide spectrum strategy road map this month, which will make more frequencies available to warfighters, provide greater flexibility—especially for international operations—and ultimately allow warfighters to conduct their missions more effectively. At the same time, however, some are suggesting a nationwide strategy to allow for more innovative and effective spectrum management and sharing across government and industry.

The Defense Department released its spectrum strategy in February to address the ever-increasing demand for wireless spectrum to achieve national security goals. That strategy largely was written by personnel within the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) Defense Spectrum Organization (DSO) in coordination with the office of the chief information officer for the Defense Department. Now, the two offices are working on a road map for implementing the strategy.

Concurrently, some are recommending development of a comprehensive, nationwide strategy for spectrum management affecting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and all other agencies as well as the commercial sector. “What we have is a spectrum structure within the United States that was first created by the Telecommunications Act of 1934. We have created a pretty rigid system. What we’re pushing for through our spectrum strategy are changes and innovative ways to operate spectrum,” says Stuart Timerman, DSO director. “We would like to see that adopted nationally to have a national spectrum strategy where the FCC, NTIA and all of the federal agencies and commercial industry would plan for the future.”

A national strategy makes sense, he explains, because of the limited spectrum available for commercial and military use. Limited spectrum availability has become especially acute with the growing demand for cellphones and mobile devices on the commercial side and the growing demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data, such as bandwidth-hogging unmanned aerial vehicle footage, on the military side.

President Barack Obama has asked the Defense Department to give up or share frequencies within the 1755 to 1780 spectrum band, which prompted the need for the new Defense Department strategy and road map. “What we’re finding in all of this analysis to repurpose spectrum and provide more for commercial use is that we’re just running out of places to look,” Timerman declares. Initially, he recalls, the department was looking at the 1755 to 1850 band. “And it was just too big a job. We could not find a way to repurpose all that spectrum that was feasible,” he says, adding that the cost of spectrum reallocation was a major challenge. “So, we whittled it down. But we’re getting to the point where our requirements are growing by leaps and bounds as far as the world economy and smartphones and new purposes for how to use spectrum,” he explains. “We really do need to get together and formulate a national spectrum plan and work toward the future. That’s what we all need to strive for.”

The Telecommunications Act of 1934 was updated in 1996, but, “It really didn’t truly address the situation,” Timerman says. Some in Congress have proposed another update, but Timerman said he is unaware of any drafted legislation that would go as far as he believes is necessary.

He acknowledges that adopting a nationwide strategy would not be easy. It likely would require new legislation as well as agencies working together for a common cause. Adding to the challenge, the NTIA falls under the supervision and control of the executive branch, whereas the FCC falls under the auspices of Congress. “Nobody truly controls both organizations. But legislation certainly could direct the federal government to do something,” he offers.

Additionally, crafting a long-term national strategy would require departments and agencies to drop much of what they already are doing. “There are so many different areas we are all trying to address that it would be very difficult to undergo this major undertaking and forgo all the other things we need to do, so it almost takes a major push to do this,” he states.

Timerman acknowledges that a national spectrum strategy would create headaches for his office as well. “I almost flinch when I talk about this, because I believe this is something that needs to happen, but we have so many other things on our plates. Some of the actions we’re taking for the near term would have to be put on hold while we tried to look at the big picture,” he allows.

Part of the problem currently is that the spectrum has been allocated for very specific purposes. “We have basically stovepiped a lot of the spectrum so that only a particular use can be done in it. And the technology is developed to use the spectrum the way it is allocated. We don’t necessarily have flexible technology because it needs to be developed with the rules and regulations in mind,” he points out.

Furthermore, relatively few people are available to contribute to a new strategy. “In reality, there is just a handful of the population that understands spectrum management, both commercially and in the federal government, so there’s a finite number of resources to really tackle the problem,” Timerman offers.

For now, Timerman is focused on the soon-to-be-released Defense Department road map. “Our vision is that it will allow the warfighter to perform the mission better,” he says. For example, every country or territory in which the military operates has its own rules for spectrum usage. Technology developed in the United States also must be usable elsewhere. The problem is exacerbated when warfighters are provided far fewer frequencies for operations than they really need. “Our goal is to get around those kinds of situations to where we can operate pretty much anywhere in the world and not be denied use of host nation spectrum,” he suggests.

Technology can help alleviate the situation. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on several efforts that Timerman cites as potential game changers for the warfighters. The first is called Radio Map. Timerman explains it as using radios as sensors to map the spectrum environment. By determining when the spectrum highway is clear or congested, the technology allows improved planning and more effective operation. “Part of the whole strategy is to have systems evolve that are more flexible,” he says.

In addition, the Shared Spectrum Access for Radar and Communications program is designed to reduce interference from radars, such as air traffic control systems, on radio communications systems. “Radars put out pulses, and they wreak havoc with communications devices. Sometimes you even notice it when you drive by an airport and listen to your radio. You may hear a pop or something in your radio,” he illustrates. Also, NATO officials have reported that air traffic control systems in Afghanistan sometimes interfered with tactical communications in the area.

Timerman praises DARPA for being at the forefront of dynamic spectrum access, which uses so-called smart radios to sense the environment and constantly look for alternatives in case some frequencies become overloaded. Every radio on the network can automatically adjust without disruptions for the user. “DARPA’s proved that concept. In fact, I went to Yuma a couple of years ago and watched them demonstrate that they could change frequencies and keep on communicating on the handheld radios, even in the presence of some jamming. That, to me, is very encouraging,” Timerman offers. “These radios are extremely intelligent.” He adds that the systems also can be preprogrammed with spectrum management rules and regulations for various nations or regions around the world so that they will automatically adjust as necessary.

The DSO also has several programs under the umbrella Global Electrical Magnetic Spectrum Information System program that will assist spectrum management efforts. For example, Spectrum XXI Online is the next-generation, Web-based version of the department’s standard spectrum management tool for automating all levels of frequency management. The graphical user interface provides a comprehensive suite of features that enable spectrum managers, at all levels of skill and experience, to easily create, review and track their frequency assignments from initial proposals to final authorization. The system is expected to be fully operational in the third fiscal quarter of 2017.

In addition, the Joint Spectrum Data Repository contains defense, national and international spectrum-related information up to the secret level. It can be accessed by any system developed in the proper format. And a system known as Mercury assists in the coordination of spectrum during major disasters, such as tsunamis or earthquakes. It has been used in Japan and the Philippines. “It allows users to request frequency assignments in an open, unclassified environment, and then it captures the information. And behind the scenes we’re able to do an analysis to provide them frequencies. It’s cordoned off so that it’s a tool for public use, but it utilizes the resources available in the classified world,” Timerman says.

The strategy, the road map and the technologies being developed are all part of an effort to ensure that warfighters do not lose operational capability whenever the department loses spectrum. “Our going-in position any time we release spectrum is that it not impact the mission. That makes it a very difficult job,” Timerman says.

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