As mobile technology continues to evolve and expand, it’s become increasingly apparent that a spectrum crunch is headed down the pipeline.

Taking up arms proactively, members of the United States government have begun work to free up more airwaves, both through the upcoming spectrum auction and through legislation in Congress.

One such bill, the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act (known as H.R. 1641 in the House and S. 887 in the Senate), is a bipartisan measure that seeks to “incentivize federal agencies to free up additional spectrum for commercial use by relocating and consolidating spectrum holdings in return for a portion of the auction revenues.”

At the time of the legislation’s introduction back in March, CTIA’s Jot Carpenter called the bill “the type of forward-thinking bipartisan spectrum policy that we need to meet our nation’s commercial and government spectrum needs.”

Earlier this month, the bill was unanimously approved by the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology and was forwarded to the full Energy and Commerce Committee for consideration. The Senate version of the bill was referred to that body’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in March.

But one expert said the passage of such legislation may not be enough.

The Problem with Spectrum Legislation

According to Kevin Kelly, CEO of government network solutions contractor LGS Innovations, the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act could face an uphill battle even after passage.

Kelly said there are two interconnected main issues with the legislation that would hinder progress.

First, Kelly said those looking for open spectrum in federal allocations will likely be hard pressed to find unused airwaves.

“You’re not going to find, in my opinion, too many areas of the spectrum that have been allocated that aren’t being used,” Kelly said.

Among the most prolific users of government spectrum, he said, are the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of the Interior.

Second, Kelly said migrating out of the spectrum currently in use would be both costly and difficult, especially for an agency with a wide-ranging library of telecommunications operations like the DoD.

“When you talk about exiting wide bands of spectrum you have to talk about replacements and redeploy systems that can support those communications,” Kelly said. “So to migrate them is a monumental task. It certainly can be done, it needs to be done and finding more efficient ways to use the spectrum we have is paramount. My only concern is the percentage allotted to the agencies to pay for the migration may be insufficient.”

According to the text of the bill, only one percent of the proceeds from the auction of federal spectrum would be returned to the agency giving up its spot.

Spectrum Sharing a Necessity

Going forward, Kelly said solutions to the spectrum crunch will need to include what is currently a contentious option: spectrum sharing.

“I think spectrum sharing needs to be a key component of this,” Kelly said. “The old model of allocating spectrum for singular use is not practical…so getting creative about spectrum sharing is going to be important.”

As spectrum becomes an increasingly rare commodity and as spectrum sharing begins to rise, Kelly said spectrum management capabilities will be key.

“As companies pay more and more for spectrum – we’re talking billions of dollars in the AWS-3 auction – the more they’re going to be interested in making sure they’re the only one using it,” Kelly explained. “One of the things we’re seeing is a demand for spectrum management capabilities, who’s using that spectrum and whether they have the right to use it. When you get into spectrum sharing, technology like that becomes very important, to make sure if I paid for 10 percent of that spectrum I’m only using 10 percent.”

According to Kelly, the evolution of spectrum use can be expected to follow much the same timeline as the transition from old TV technology to new TV. That is, a decade or more.

To get there, Kelly said, a united effort will be required, and that may take some time to develop.

“The police and first responders have a very different opinion about the use of wireless spectrum than, say, the carriers, so you have to get everyone thinking about it the same way,” he said. “Getting them all on the same page takes a while.”

LGS Innovations provides both research and development and network and engineering services to the U.S. government. A former subsidiary of Alcatel-Lucent that was divested in 2014, the company is also the government’s sole supplier of Alcatel-Lucent and (due to the recent merger) Nokia products.