They may still be reluctant, but three of the four major carriers are now willing to entertain the idea of sharing the same airwaves with government users. This week Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod), AT&T(s t) and T-Mobile signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to explore spectrum sharing possibilities on 95 MHz of frequencies currently used by the U.S. Department of Defense and other federal agencies.
Charged with identifying more airwaves for commercial use, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) recommended last year that the private and public sector split time on government airwaves. The idea is that the DOD and other users were only using their spectrum at certain times and in certain places, so why not let carriers access those frequencies whenever and wherever they weren’t occupied by the feds?
Carriers traditionally like licenses they can call their own, and the industry initially responded to the deal with skepticism. In a blog post, AT&T still said it would rather see airwaves cleared entirely of government users and auctioned for commercial use but was amenable to the idea of sharing if clearing the airwaves was not possible.
“I want to emphasize that we continue to believe that clearing and reallocating is the best approach to freeing up much needed spectrum for commercial mobile broadband use,” AT&T Assistant VP Stacey Black wrote in the policy blog. “The existing exclusive licensing regime has resulted in billions of dollars in wireless infrastructure investment, enabling the U.S. to lead the way in the global mobile broadband marketplace. While clearing spectrum for exclusive commercial licensing must remain the top priority, when that is neither time nor cost effective, AT&T supports exploring sharing arrangements.”
Black hints at another possible obstacle to a shared spectrum plan: Congress. Lawmakers have counted on the billions raised in spectrum auctions to fill government coffers. Depending on how spectrum sharing was implemented it would either raise no money or far less than previous auctions.
Over the next few months, the three carriers and the DOD conduct trials and simulations of sharing scenarios at government installations. The results of those tests will be released in March.
Sprint was the only carrier in the Big 4 not on the list, but a Sprint spokesman told FierceWireless that the company works closely with the NTIA and will be following the tests closely.