By David Alexander and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon said on Thursday it was working to find ways to share more of its reserved airwaves with commercial wireless companies that need greater bandwidth for smartphone and tablet users, but it declined to elaborate on how much it might vacate.
The Pentagon's communications chief, Teri Takai, said the department was working "very closely" with key federal agencies to reach President Barack Obama's goal of making 500 megahertz of airwaves reserved for federal agencies available to telecommunications companies over the next decade.
Air Force Major General Robert Wheeler said the Pentagon believed the "best plan for the future" would be a combination of the military vacating parts of the spectrum, sharing other parts with industry and compressing communications in some cases to make more space available.
"That's how we're going forward with it," he told a Pentagon news conference. "It also depends on what industry needs. ... So there's basically a combination."
The remarks by Takai and Wheeler came as they unveiled a strategy to help the data-hungry U.S. military adapt to increasing commercial and national security demands for airwaves as the government seeks to reach Obama's goal.
The U.S. military is information-intensive, using large amounts of electromagnetic spectrum for everything from feeding video surveillance images from drones, to communications between soldiers and commanders in the field and global teleconferences among senior leaders.
The Pentagon has faced criticism from some in the telecommunications industry and Congress for resisting efforts to open its airwaves to commercial use.
The Defense Department has pointed to its own growing needs and has estimated that shifting to new frequencies could cost some $12 billion because of the need to replace old equipment that may be dedicated to a specific frequency.
But the department sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission in July offering to share some of the spectrum it uses in the 1755- to 1780 megahertz frequency with telecommunications firms. It would compress its communications from that frequency into the 1780-1850 megahertz band.
That proposal is still under consideration. Takai said the FCC was responsible for discussing it with industry, and making any final announcements on the way forward.
The plan, which would be narrower than moving to all new frequencies, would cost about $3.5 billion. Any cost to the Pentagon would likely be offset by funds received when access to the spectrum is auctioned off.
The 12-page electromagnetic spectrum strategy was short on specifics but the officials said two separate follow-up documents being developed over the next six months, a roadmap and an action plan, would offer specifics.
The Pentagon plans to undertake an expedited effort to make sure military communications equipment is more efficient in its use of frequency, upgrading parts where necessary to enable gear to shift among frequencies rather than being fixed to just one.
"By becoming more efficient, flexible and adaptable, our systems will be better prepared to meet the demands of modern war-fighting," Takai said.
The Pentagon also will ensure that when the military begins developing major new weapons systems, that it fully incorporates the spectrum management strategy in its planning.
"Because of our long lead times in actually being able to make major technology shifts, it's important that we have a strategy that is thinking long term," Takai said. "We cannot shift in a short time frame. We just have too much equipment and too much capability that really has to be transitioned in a very thoughtful way so as not to impose a major burden on budgets."
(Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh)