What is the status of transitions in the federal spectrum?

The situation of federal customers’ transitions out of auctioned bands ranging from AWS-1 to CBRS and extra midband spectrum at 3.45-3.45 GHz is detailed in a newly released progress report.

The Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act annual report for 2021 was released by the Department of Commerce and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration earlier this month (NTIA). For some of these federal users, the complete transfer out of the band will take at least a decade, plus millions of dollars annually to move activities and attain “similar capability” with their previous operations.

The report update encompasses spectrum auctioned as far back as AWS-1 in 2006, and it not only provides an update on the transition efforts of government users, but also details the total amount spent on moving out of the band and gaining comparable capacity thereafter.

These figures have real-world consequences for future spectrum planning and auctions, as they provide a peek of the actual time and cost required to clear a band. Clearly, certain bands are far more expensive and time-consuming to clear or distribute than others, especially as time passes. Since the federal government is the largest spectrum holder and user, the willingness and capability of existing users to move or change operations in the band (and the federal government’s ability to cover the costs, or potentially provide incentives for them to do so) are more important than ever as commercial network operators, new and existing satellite users, and additional players jockey for increasingly congested spectrum and try to figure out how they are going to use it.

The report provides status updates for the following bands:

  • For AWS-1 at 1.710-1.755 GHz, a dozen federal agencies have completed their transition off of that spectrum, but the Department of Energy “continues to expend funds toward achieving comparable capability” seventeen years after the AWS-1 auction, according to the report. This expenditure totaled $5,7 million in fiscal year 2021, bringing the overall total to $1,36 billion.
  • The 2015 AWS-3 auction update includes two band regions. Five federal departments continue to have indefinite sharing agreements in the 1.695-1.700 GHz band and received $33.7 million last year from the Spectrum Relocation Fund, bringing the total expenditure for this sector of the band to $254.3 million.

The research indicates that around 1.755-2.780 GHz, two federal agencies are still changing their spectrum use, and nine agencies are still expending money to attain comparable capabilities (another eight agencies have achieved both). This resulted in relocation costs of $440 million for fiscal year 2021, with an extra $293 million allocated for the Department of Justice to complete its transformation. The cumulative cost has reached $2.27 billion, although the NTIA’s original cost estimates for relocation and sharing exceeded $4.5 billion.

The research estimates that the remaining agencies will complete their transition by 2025.

  • Recently, government users of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) shared band at 3.55-3.65 GHz have began spending and annual review. During the 2021 fiscal year, about $19 million was spent on the activities of five Department of Defense entities that share this frequency band. The overall anticipated cost for relocation and sharing on a comparable-capability basis is slightly more than $98 million, and according to the study, all affected agencies have completed the transition to band sharing.
  • Although the 3.45-3.55 GHz auction did not occur until October 2021 and the actual transition out of the band has not yet begun, five DoD agencies have already received around $67 million in pre-auction planning funding and an additional $15.34 million in transition-related expenditures. The NTIA estimates the overall relocation and sharing costs for the band to be $13.43 billion; the auction’s gross earnings exceeded $22.5 billion.

Source: RCR Wireless

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