Military spectrum eyes civvy street

Radio spectrum bandwidth currently managed by the military inches closer to public use

Large swathes of radio spectrum bandwidth currently managed by the military and other key services should be opened up to other departments and even the private sector, according to the Bandsharing Forum.

Launched on Monday, the organisation brings together representatives from the private and public sector to investigate how frequencies restricted for decades to the MoD, aviation and maritime organisations can be opened up for other uses.

The Bandsharing Forum claims that organisations such as the MoD and the Civil Aviation Authority control more than 40 percent of the most useful radio spectrum and wants a proportion of this opened up to new technologies.

"Ofcom welcomes the launch of the Bandsharing Forum. This will enable us to engage with one representative industry body with regards to public sector spectrum issues to ensure the most effective use of scarce radio spectrum in the UK, " said William Webb, head of R&D at spectrum regulator Ofcom.

An audit carried out last year for the Government by Professor Martin Cave, the Cave Audit, concluded that there was enough bandwidth for both the public and private sectors and recommended that competing technologies should share frequencies.

But the Bandsharing Forum maintains that the spectrum can only be made available after the completion of a rigorous test programme in which Ofcom and government agencies are fully engaged, to ensure that existing and planned public services are not compromised or affected.

The bands in question have until now been used mostly by the MoD and aviation and maritime authorities for radar. The Bandsharing Forum's spokesperson told ZDNet UK that this arrangement dates back to the sinking of the HMS Sheffield during the Falklands War — the ship's crew had temporarily turned off the radar to use that bandwidth for communications.

It will not be until sometime next year that service providers such as mobile operators will be able to join the Forum. According to the spokesperson for the Forum, this is to avoid "undue commercial pressure right from the start".

"The private sector wants bandwidths available as soon as possible, therefore they got involved at this stage," said the spokesperson. "Each entity has a commercial agenda but what is most important is that the core technologies are tested side by side to make the safety case first," he added.

The spokesperson said that the bandwidth should not have to be reclaimed by the military in the case of a national emergency, but could if necessary.

The Bandsharing Forum is a non-profit organisation funded by its members. These currently include research and development firms such as Qinetiq, Roke Manor Research and ERA Technology. Network equipment providers will be invited to join later in the year.