Growing need for spectrum brings new challenges

New tools only partly address sweeping spectrum demand.

Paige Atkins is director of the Defense Spectrum Organization, a center of excellence at the Defense Information Systems Agency that is charged with providing the Defense Department with policy, planning support, engineering and tools to ensure warfighters have access to the radio spectrum required for their mission. She spoke with Defense Systems senior contributing editor Sean Gallagher about the spectrum management challenges that DOD faces. 

The avalanche of demand for bandwidth brings a lot of challenges to us from the spectrum community perspective. We’ve never before had so many tools to maintain information superiority to find the target, to attack the enemy, to support and protect our warfighters. But these tools often require a large amount of bandwidth, which means a growing need for spectrum access, because the sharp end of the spear is really mobile.

Those growing requirements are not just communications. There are weapons systems, logistics, radar sensors, navigation and numerous satellite systems that all depend upon spectrum access to provide capabilities to the warfighter. So we have growing challenges due to our requirements, and in parallel, the exponential growth of commercial wireless technologies, which are effectively competing for spectrum access with us.

Another significant challenge is spectrum supportability — ensuring as we develop, design, acquire, field and operate systems, they will operate as intended. That means gaining spectrum access where needed — and not cause or endure unacceptable degradation due to interference with other systems. And this is not just a U.S. issue for us; it is a global issue.

Ultimately, spectrum is a sovereign resource. So, though nations may typically use the international radio regulation as a framework, they can and will change it as needed to accommodate their national requirements and priorities. The United States does that as every nation does — deciding what services are allowed and on what frequency bands. It’s a very structured environment.

That means that the rule set within which we operate can change on a nation-by-nation basis, and those rule sets can change over time, whether at the World Radiocommunication Conference on a global basis or as individual nations update their own regulatory allocations and structure. And as you look at that complexity, coupled with the explosion of wireless technology, you have huge volatility and uncertainty across these global deployments of systems. It makes it very difficult for us to develop, design, acquire and field capabilities that can operate anywhere at any time — and well into the future as well, as many of our systems are out there for quite some time. And these are capabilities that lives depend on. So it’s critical that we better understand that complexity and volatility.

Recently there were some updates to a couple of spectrum and acquisition policies within the DOD — DOD Instruction 5000.02, [issued Dec. 8, 2008], and DOD Instruction 4650, [which is still in draft form]. Those updates will help us ensure that the warfighter has sufficient spectrum access, partially by ensuring early consideration of spectrum in the early stages of a program and throughout its life cycle, so we can better plan and manage these competing and growing requirements. It’s still a volatile, changing and complex environment, which makes it very difficult, but we do our best to minimize the risk associated with that.

Host nation and international coordination also can be challenging. The U.S. and particularly the DOD is at the forefront, working with other governments and international organizations in securing spectrum access for global security. We are heavily engaged in my organization, along with others in DOD, the International Telecommunication Union’s activities and the World Radiocommunication Conference. We have multilateral, bilateral and other international commitments around the globe, and we proactively work within those communities to achieve our goals for spectrum access — not only now but, more importantly, in the future. But it’s a challenging environment, as you can imagine. The ITU has 191 member states, so you are working within that large community to influence, guide, and protect global security interests and global military interests.

Another challenging area, and one we’re very focused in, is the development of next-generation spectrum management techniques, technologies and tools. In particular, we are concentrating on maturing the technologies, assessing the regulatory frameworks, developing new and better processes and establishing standards to allow us to better leverage emerging tech, such as software-defined radio and cognitive radio.

What we’re trying to do is move toward a much more distributed and dynamic framework that is supported by what we call dynamic spectrum access — the concept that a wireless device can know where it is, can actively sense the environment around it, can know the policies for that region of the world or the operations that it is supporting, and can intelligently choose how it operates to accomplish the mission, and operate within the regulatory constraints that exist and minimize interference with other systems around it. That’s a very powerful concept, and we’ve made a lot of progress collectively within the department, demonstrating some of these technologies. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been on the forefront of this effort.

But we still have a long way to go. It is a challenge: We want to be able to leverage these technologies longer term. But they don’t fit nicely within the traditional or current regulatory framework, which very tightly controls what frequencies you can work within. The Defense Spectrum Organization is working across the department entities to get our arms wrapped around this and understand how we move forward not only to leverage the technologies today as we can, but, more importantly, mature them and understand the policy and regulatory implications. That way, when we want to exploit them more fully, we have all the elements in place to do that.

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