For Sale: Wireless spectrum for drones in North Dakota

At North Dakota’s UAS Industry Day in February, a towering man with a yellow tie took the podium and slapped a big “For Sale” sign on something called wireless spectrum in North Dakota.

The man, John Vislosky, is the Senior Vice President for Access Spectrum, a licensee of spectrum owned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that was formerly used for television analog broadcast signals. Now, he’s selling it to companies who may soon be required to use it for wireless communication via drones, he said.

What is wireless spectrum?

Wireless spectrum is the radio frequency by which wireless communication travels. It isn’t something you can see; it exists in the air like invisible telephone wires, connecting our phones, internet, radio, walkie-talkies and, yes, our drones.

News source CNET puts it this way, in an article that came out in 2012 titled “Wireless spectrum: what it is, and why you should care”:

“The TV broadcast you watch, the radio program you listen to, the GPS device that helps get you where you’re going, and the wireless phone service you use to make phone calls and check Facebook from your smartphone — all use invisible airwaves to transmit bits of data through the air.”

An easy way to visualize spectrum is to think of your radio. If you tune into The City at 94.5, that means that that radio station is broadcasting at at 94.5 megahertz (megahertz is a unit used to measure electromagnetic wave frequency). If you then switch to listen to Minnesota Public Radio, you turn to the frequency 90.3. The two generally don’t interfere with each other, because each radio station broadcasts on it’s own sliver of spectrum.

When their is interference, however, you hear that scratchy medley of two stations intermingling. And that’s what people don’t want, especially when communicating wirelessly with drones.

Drones on wireless spectrum

This interference is what John Vislosky is trying to prevent by selling wireless spectrum specifically designated for unmanned aircraft systems.

“[Drones] are all flown on a big pipe of spectrum,” Vislosky said. “There’s going to be interference. On dedicated spectrum, you assign it to the aircraft with a dedicated link – like a private number.”

Drones and other unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) will need to use wireless spectrum to communicate data with other devices, Vislosky said. As more and more people purchase drones, the more crowded the spectrum they communicate on will become.

That’s where Access Spectrum comes in. They are an entity that holds the Upper 700 MHz A Block – basically, a chunk of spectrum that covers the United States and parts of the Gulf of Mexico.

The band is a perfect spectrum home for small unmanned vehicle systems beyond visual line of sight flight controls and/or data payloads,” they state on the website. “The spectrum is exclusive and interference-free and available for purchase by geographic area now.”

What Vislosky and Access Spectrum are banking on is that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will require all unmanned aircraft to be flown on licensed spectrum.

“The FAA and other government agencies are almost certainly going to require operators in the Small and Large UAS markets to operate on licensed spectrum,” they state in the video.

Now is the time to plant your stakes, Vislosky said.

Who’s buying?

Typically, the spectrum is sold in larger pieces, such as an entire state, or in portions of the state, Vislosky said. Right now, anyone could purchase the spectrum for the entire state of North Dakota (2 megahertz) for $1,109, 223.

Anyone can purchase the spectrum so long as they are not a foreign entity, Vislosky said. Their typical customers include mining and oil companies, or other entities with large areas of land to cover.

Already, Vislosky said, he has closed sales and transferred licenses through the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to NorthWestern Energy for Montana and parts of South Dakota, Portland General Electric for Oregon and parts of Idaho, Salt River Project for Phoenix-Mesa and areas of Arizona, Great River Energy for all Minnesota, parts of Wisconsins and sections of South Dakota (with GRE as a current leased customer who will concert to a license purchase).

Most recently, in January and pending FCC final approval, California High Speed Rail Authority purchased access spectrum for the entire state of California.

Access Spectrum

Vislosky said he is currently working with Bob Becklund, executive director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site, on a partnership for a ‘trial run’ of using the spectrum in North Dakota. More information on their partnership will be released this week, he said.

Once the spectrum is purchased and owned, then anyone else who wishes to operate on that spectrum will pay the owner. For example, farmers who want to use spectrum to operate drones over their farms in California, will pay the California High Speed Rail Authority for their own line of spectrum.

Licensed vs. Unlicensed Spectrum

Not all agree with the idea of purchasing and using licensed spectrum. Greg Freismuth, CTO of Las Vegas based startup Dronesmith, pointed out that much of the innovation with the internet was done on unlicensed spectrum – or, open spectrum.

The only reason we have something like Wi-Fi today, he said, is because people utilized the slivers of spectrum that wasn’t licensed by the FCC.

In fact, open spectrum, or free spectrum, is a movement to get the FCC to provide more unlicensed wireless spectrum available for use by all. Instead, users could use Internet protocols to communicate with each other.

“Previous government-imposed limits on who can have stations and who cannot would be removed,[2] and everyone would be given equal opportunity to use the airwaves for their own radio station, television station, or even broadcast their own website,” reads the description on Wikipedia.

Advocates for open spectrum include Gary Shapiro, President of the Consumer Electronic Assocation. Shapiro has referred to unlicensed spectrum as “the oxygen for innovation.”

“We didn’t know we needed garage door openers, cordless phones, or TV remote controls until someone came along and invented them,” Shapiro said.

Others, however, were enticed by Vislosky’s message. One, a drone enthusiast at UAS Industry Day, approached him asking for more information, claiming he would be willing to put down money for spectrum over the Gulf – a sure to be hot spot for drone activity, Vislosky said.

Vislosky’s current mission is spreading awareness as to what this invisible thing called wireless spectrum is, and why people should… tune in to the issue.

“We just want people to know we have a dog in the fight,” he said.

 

For more information on the 700 MHz A Block exclusive spectrum for sale for Small Unmanned Vehicle Systems contact John at john.vislosky@accessspectrum.com

Photos courtesy of Access Spectrum.

Marisa Jackels