Spectrum re-purposing process underway with release of Ten-Year Plan and Fast Track Evaluation

Those of you awaiting the FCC’s November 30 meeting (when the Commission is scheduled to unveil its plan for repurposing of TV spectrum) may want to get warmed up for that experience by leafing through two reports just issued by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). (Nit-picky observation: while the covers of both reports bear an “October 2010” date, both were first posted on the NTIA website on November 15.)

One – titled “Plan and Timetable to Make Available 500 Megahertz of Spectrum for Wireless Broadband” (Ten-Year Plan) – outlines in 23 pages of text (with some dazzling charts and tables) the overall process by which the government plans to jigger with existing spectrum usage in order to wring out 500 MHz for wireless broadband.

The second – with a formal title even more prosaic than the Ten-Year Plan’s (we’ll just refer to it as the Fast Track Evaluation) – lays out over more than 250 pages of text, tables, lists (and a two-and-a-half page glossary of abbreviation and acronyms) the analytical process through which the Feds have identified 115 MHz of their own spectrum which they would like to feed to the Voracious Broadband Beast within five years.

NTIA has also issued a more digestible five-page “fact sheet” summarizing the two longer items.

The Fast Track Evaluation illustrates a couple of things.

First, it may be seen as a gesture of good faith, an effort by the government to assure wary private sector spectrum users that the federales are indeed committed to contributing their own spectrum to the effort. Yes, the government is planning a major league disruption to TV broadcasters’ spectrum for the second time in a decade, the report seems to say, but the government is sharing in the pain by coughing up a bunch of its own spectrum as well – up to 115 MHz in the short-term.

Second, the Fast Track Evaluation underscores the complexities of the spectrum re-purposing task. For instance, the government bands which are proposed to be “fast tracked” over to broadband include spectrum currently used for radio altimeters – which (among other things) guide aircraft and “tactical weapons (missiles)” – and “precision guided munitions”. Plainly, caution will need to be exercised when it comes to messing with this spectrum.

Of course, the ability of the government actually to realize the ambitious approach described in the Fast Track Evaluation depends on a number of unknowns – including, perhaps most importantly, the “timely allocation of funds”. But NTIA still seems to want us to know that its heart is in the right place.

The Ten-Year Plan lays out in considerable detail the bureaucratic mazes that will have to be negotiated to achieve the desired goal of freeing up 500 MHz over the next ten years. Anyone questioning the use of the term “maze” here should consider the following chart, taken from the Ten-Year Plan. It depicts on a single time-line the “Legislative, US Regulatory and International Actions” that will need to occur:

The only thing missing is the explanatory notation “And then a miracle occurs” somewhere toward the end.

Or how about this chart, which depicts the process which would have to be followed if any spectrum re-purposing would necessitate changes in the international radio regs:

The message is that, even though the Feds are hell-bent to get this spectrum re-purposing process started, and even though they remain absolutely convinced that that process is essential to the future of civilization as we know it, there remain a boatload of possible pitfalls in the way.

None of this should surprise anybody here. We have seen much, if not all, of this coming since the drumbeat of the National Broadband Plan began its extended crescendo a year ago. The NTIA’s two recent releases merely underscore that we have a long, and likely hard, way to go before this is all over.