The Department of Defense (DoD) and White House announced today that the Pentagon will make available 100 megahertz of mid-band wireless spectrum that will then be auctioned off to commercial wireless service providers offering 5G services.

Government agencies that control spectrum rarely want to give it up, and DoD’s agreement to let the private sector use the spectrum – presumably with some sharing arrangement that also allows for continuing military use – reveals a changing relationship between the Pentagon, government, and industry.

“Today the White House and the Department of Defense are announcing that we have identified 100 megahertz of critically needed mid-band spectrum that can be made available for commercial 5G purposes,” said U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios, of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), who recently took on the additional duties of Pentagon’s research chief.

Spectrum – the invisible radio frequencies over which wireless signals travel – is a finite and increasingly valuable resource that is given little thought by most people as wireless communications services increasingly intertwine with everyday life.

As 5G services are starting to be the deployed more widely in the U.S., and commercial demand for spectrum increases, the military is beginning slowly to relinquish some of its grip on spectrum resources.

Speaking on an August 10 call with reporters, Kratsios said moving the 3450-3550 megahertz band from government control to the hands of industry via a planned auction will amount to “the fastest transfer of Federal spectrum to commercial use in history.”

More work remains to be done before private carriers can bid on the spectrum in a Federal Communications Commission-run auction Kratsios said is scheduled for December 2021, which would pave the way for winning bidders to use the spectrum commercially by as soon as mid-2022. That work includes the FCC coming up with service rules for the spectrum.

“We expect these rules to be similar to AWS-3 where for the most part the spectrum will be available for commercial use without limits while simultaneously minimizing impact to DoD operations,” said DoD CIO Dana Deasy, speaking on the same call with Kratsios. “The 3450 to 3550 megahertz band supports critical DoD radar operations,” he said.

Notably, Deasy announced that America’s Mid-Band Initiative Team (AMBIT) was established after a meeting between the White House and DoD in mid-April. The team, Deasy said, which includes oversight from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and members from OSTP and the National Economic Council, worked on a 15-week schedule to reach the agreement that is making the spectrum available.

The working group, Deasy said brought together 180 subject matter experts from across the department, with individuals from OSTP embedded with the DoD team.

“DoD’s preparing a Spectrum Relocation Fund transition plan to allow for implementation of the sharing plan while minimizing risk to DoD operations,” he said.

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Dwight Weingarten
Dwight Weingarten
Dwight Weingarten is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.