Increasingly, our lives, lifestyles, culture and economy depend on wireless devices. Wireless devices enable us to remotely monitor our sleeping children, turn on the television without leaving the couch, make phone calls whenever and wherever, pass through toll booths without stopping, and use our laptops and personal digital assistants virtually anywhere. These devices, and many others in our modern world, work because of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Electromagnetic spectrum — usually referred to as "spectrum" — encompasses radio waves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet light, x-rays, gamma rays and cosmic rays. Radio waves are an incredibly versatile area of the spectrum and make much of our modern communication possible, including television, AM and FM radio bands and satellite radio broadcasting. While spectrum makes our lives more enjoyable, it is, in fact, critical to our modern quality of life.
Modern health care depends on spectrum to operate medical monitoring systems. Public utilities use spectrum to remotely control pipeline valves that direct the flow of our water, electricity and gas. Transportation systems rely on spectrum for cargo tracking, air traffic control and security sensors.
Firefighters, police and emergency service personnel require spectrum for rapid communication, location positioning and other services. Additionally, spectrum allows manufacturers, shippers and merchants to monitor the location of products using advanced identification technologies, such as radio frequency identification (RFID).
Warfighter Reliance on Spectrum
Our Naval forces are especially reliant on spectrum. Using RFID technology, the Navy and Marine Corps track shipments of critical supplies and confirm patient identity and enter diagnosis and treatment information. In addition to implementing commercial technologies, our Naval forces have unique spectrum requirements. Communications; radar; air and fleet defense; weapons guidance; command and control; and many other systems rely on spectrum to function. In fact, conducting network-centric warfare is impossible without spectrum.
Marine Expeditionary Forces, with integrated aircraft and combat service support, along with Navy SEAL teams, submarines and carrier strike groups are often the first to arrive in theater and must rely on spectrum to remain highly maneuverable, flexible and tactically effective.
An example of complex spectrum demand is found in a typical naval aircraft — voice communications and digital data links require many wireless devices. Weapons systems with associated fire control radar rely on spectrum for guidance to find and destroy their targets. Such demands have both expanded our military's need for, and increased its dependency on, spectrum.
A critical challenge is that spectrum is a finite resource, and it is in great demand. Without careful planning and implementation, spectrum-dependent systems may unintentionally, yet adversely interfere with each other. For example, a test flight at a naval air station was delayed because of interference to an important ground-based test measurement instrument. The source of the interference was a malfunctioning baby monitor in nearby military housing.
Providing balance between spectrum-dependent devices that make our lives more convenient and those that are critical to our national defense is a growing challenge. New technologies to improve wireless efficiency will be needed to maintain a balance between national defense and economic strength.
In the Department of the Navy (DON), we are constantly exploring technologies that allow us to utilize spectrum in innovative ways. Some of these technologies include:
• Frequency agile technologies that can sense a competing device on the same frequency and instantly switch to available spectrum;
• Software-defined radios that can set or alter almost any characteristic of a device, including frequency ranges and power and modulation, simply by loading new software;
• Ultra-wide band devices that can “see through walls” to detect combat threats without entering a building.
In addition to implementing new technology, we must all collaborate in the efficient use of current assets to guarantee dependable spectrum access for everyone.
Coordination of Spectrum Use
The complexity of spectrum coordination is enormous, and it is a global challenge because the DON deploys Marine Corps forces and Navy assets worldwide. Careful and constant coordination is required to guarantee that the Department meets it mission.
Through international negotiations, the DON ensures that the spectrum-dependent capabilities of the Navy and Marine Corps are preserved.
Because the radio frequency spectrum must be shared among nations, a United Nations agency, the International Telecommunication Union, convenes the World Radiocommunication Conference to modify spectrum allocation as technology and services require.
All members of the United Nations are invited to these conferences and the Department of the Navy Chief Information Officer participates as the Department’s national and international representative to these forums.
To achieve its goals, the DON strives to improve efficient use of spectrum through collaborative efforts among business, industry, government and other nations.
In order to maintain America’s advantage and secure our country’s future, we must continue to work to meet our growing national spectrum challenges because electromagnetic spectrum is critical to both our nation’s security and economy.
Tom Kidd is the director for DON Strategic Spectrum Policy for the Department of the Navy Chief Information Officer.