Use it or Share It: A New Default Policy for Spectrum Management

53 Pages Posted: 7 Jan 2021 Last revised: 10 Mar 2021

See all articles by Michael Calabrese

Michael Calabrese

New America Foundation - Open Technology Institute

Date Written: January 7, 2021


The conventional wisdom that spectrum is scarce, particularly mid-band spectrum, persists despite the reality that most federal and commercial bands remain grossly underutilized and amenable to more intensive, shared use. Yet eight years after a 2012 report by the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) recommended that spectrum sharing should be “the new normal,” important but limited progress has been made. Conceptually, use-it-or-share-it rules authorize opportunistic access to licensed or federal spectrum that is unused or underutilized. A use-it-or-share-it authorization expands productive use of spectrum without risking harmful interference or undermining the deployment plans of primary licensees. Since 2014 the FCC has adopted a number of world-leading precedents in opportunistic spectrum sharing that all apply a variation of the use-it-or-share-it approach. These precedents and proven new frequency coordination mechanisms can pave the way to an authorization of opportunistic access as the default policy for a far larger number of underutilized and newly-allocated bands.

A use-or-share approach promotes important policy goals, including more intensive use of fallow spectrum capacity, lowering barriers of entry to a diverse range of uses and users, facilitating innovation and competition, improving choices and lowering costs for consumers, and promoting service in rural and other underserved areas, helping to narrow the digital divide. Unleashing opportunistic, shared access to unused spectrum also creates a general incentive for licensees to build out more quickly and to make greater efforts to lease or sell unused spectrum, facilitating secondary markets. In addition, because spectrum is a government controlled resource essential for wireless communication, FCC decisions on access to spectrum must be consistent with First Amendment principles. The FCC has begun operationalizing the “scarcity rationale” by applying a balancing approach to determine if interference is unduly “harmful” to the actual performance of incumbent services or systems – and not merely hypothetical, fleeting, or de minimis. The paper closes by examining near-term opportunities to extend shared access to more substantial underutilized federal, commercial and FCC-held bands, including 700 megahertz of mid-band federal spectrum and 700 megahertz in two very underutilized licensed bands.

Keywords: spectrum, wireless, mobile broadband, wireless broadband

Suggested Citation

Calabrese, Michael, Use it or Share It: A New Default Policy for Spectrum Management (January 7, 2021). TPRC48: The 48th Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy, Available at SSRN: or

Michael Calabrese (Contact Author)

New America Foundation - Open Technology Institute ( email )

1899 L St., N.W., Suite 400
Washington, CA 20036
United States

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