WASHINGTON-Pentagon officials, in a highly public break with the Clinton administration, say further transfer of federal government frequencies to the private sector will compromise military combat capability.
That the Department of Defense is going public with grievances about spectrum policy represents a marked shift in strategy, and adds to the growing criticism about a license auction program that is witnessing payment defaults to the U.S. Treasury, bankruptcies and Wall Street financing problems among auction winners.
Critics claim auctions are budget-driven and that the flood of spectrum spilled into the market for sale has complicated system financing. The net result could lead to less wireless competition than policymakers expected.
For the Pentagon, statements to Congress and the media about spectrum reflect an anxiety the military has felt all along since 1993 when Congress ordered the federal government to gradually surrender 235 megahertz and gave the Federal Communications Commission authority to auction subscription-based commercial wireless services.
About 120 megahertz of that 235 megahertz total has gone to the FCC so far.
Meanwhile, General Accounting Office investigators have been busy trying to assess the impact of federal spectrum reallocation on the U.S. military.
The Pentagon resisted releasing spectrum in 1993, when some lawmakers accused the federal government of hoarding the airwaves, but the military top brass reluctantly gave in after it became apparent spectrum reallocation and auction legislation had enough political momentum to win congressional approval.
Since then, federal agencies have gone through the painful process of giving up frequencies and relocating communications facilities to other spectrum bands.
“NTIA shares the view of DOD that efficient use of radio spectrum, which is limited and a valuable resource, is of vital national interest,” said Paige Darden, a spokeswomen for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
NTIA, which manages federal government spectrum and advises the president on telecommunications policy, said it supports efficient radio equipment standards as a means of freeing up more spectrum. But the FCC differs, believing the market should determine technical standards.
But there is increased fear at the Pentagon particularly that Congress and the administration, impressed with $22 billion raised from wireless license auctions to date and intent on eliminating the budget deficit during the next five years, wants more federal spectrum sold on the open market.
“The DOD, and the nation, are losing in two ways: the cost in lost military effectiveness and the financial cost of relocating or replacing existing systems,” stated Dr. Frank B. Horton III, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense in testimony submitted to the Senate Commerce Committee last June.
“The ability of our target acquisition radars, remotely piloted vehicles, missile systems, shipboard air traffic control radars, long-range air surveillance radars, and tactical radio relay, to perform as intended in both peacetime and conflict has been directly affected,” Horton added.
Indeed, the government estimates a cost of $500 million associated with the reallocation of 235 megahertz to the private sector. The administration has proposed that entities that buy slices of former government spectrum pay to relocate displaced radio systems of federal agencies. That approach is used in the private sector where personal communications services licensees finance the relocation of microwave users that occupy the 2 GHz band.
However, Congress has yet to approve such a mechanism for compensating federal government agencies.
“There is a significant dollar impact involved in the issue. If DOD has to yield portions of the spectrum to new commerce, existing military equipment operating within these frequencies must be replaced with systems than can operate on other portions of the spectrum,” said General John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12.
With the Cold War’s end, it might be assumed that defense reliance on spectrum-based communications systems would decrease. But the Pentagon argues the opposite is true, with fewer troops having to rely more heavily on automation as they are called on for peace-keeping, humanitarian aid, disaster relief, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, counter-proliferation, information security and regional security.