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Administration's weather satellite plan opposed globally

A host of weather-related groups around the globe strongly oppose the Obama administration's plans to reallocate spectrum weather satellites use to commercial cellular carriers in support of the National Broadband Plan. The groups include the World Meteorological Organization, weather agencies in countries such as Canada and Vietnam, state and local agencies, and commercial weather service providers in the United States.

Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary for communications and information at the Commerce Department and head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said on Thursday he recommended 15 megahertz of spectrum in the 1675-1710 MHz band that weather satellite systems worldwide use be reallocated to support the national broadband plan, strongly supported by President Obama to provide advanced wireless Internet services. NTIA oversees federal spectrum.

WMO said the NTIA plan could end up threatening the operation of a global constellation of 20 weather satellites, including four geostationary operational environmental satellites and four polar-orbiting satellites the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates.

Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of WMO, a United Nations agency, said in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission that a spectrum sharing plan for weather satellites in the United States could influence other countries to try the same thing, which "would put at risk meteorological and hydrological activities worldwide" and jeopardize a global system whose operation costs run between $2 billion and $3 billion annually. "There is no alternative to spectrum for METSAT [meteorological satellite operations], and no alternative frequency band that can provide similar reliable and available service," Jarraud wrote.

Weather balloons also rely on the 1675-1710 MHz band, and while Strickling said NOAA launches only two balloons per day, Jarraud said 100,000 weather balloons are launched around the world each year, carrying radiosondes which collect data necessary to fine tune weather forecasts.

This past summer, administration officials publicly discussed the idea of sharing spectrum. In a June speech, Strickling said since it was impractical to change the frequencies of satellites in space, NTIA and FCC should figure out how to share the spectrum with cellular companies. He said FCC and NTIA also want to determine the possibility of distributing weather information to end users by other means, such as the Internet or satellite systems outside the 1695-1710 MHz band.

FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology launched an inquiry in early June to determine if the band that weather satellites currently use could be shared with wireless broadband companies, on the assumption that it was "relatively lightly used." The agency said it also wanted to find out if weather information could be downlinked to a small number of satellite dishes protected from interference and then distributed by terrestrial services, such as the Internet.

Several commenters offered a range of other operations the plan could adversely affect.

Ernst Koenemann, director of program development for the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellite, which operates three weather satellites, expressed concern in his letter to FCC that spectrum sharing in the United States could lead to similar moves around the world, and he urged the agency to keep the weather satellite spectrum inviolate.

Barry Lee Myers, chief executive officer of AccuWeather Inc., a commercial weather company that provides services to a range of media outlets and 50,000 websites told FCC "if the current availability of the weather satellite downlink transmissions were to end, there would be significant adverse effects on safety and economic activity in the United States." Paul Drewniak, senior manager of the Global Forecast Center and senior meteorologist for The Weather Channel told the agency there is no viable alternative to direct downlink of weather data directly from satellites and Internet distribution is susceptible to interruptions and outages.

Raytheon, which is developing the ground segment for the next generation of weather satellites, said in its filing with FCC that spectrum sharing would not only impair distribution of weather data, but also threaten distribution of missing child Amber Alerts. Raytheon said state and local agencies use the NOAA satellites to distribute these alerts when other communication systems are down.

Water distribution systems nationwide operate 11,400 stream gauges to monitor water flow, and Diane VanDe Hei, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, said in her filing with FCC -- with distribution of that data performed in real time over the NOAA satellites. Internet distribution, she said, degrades the real-time function and reliability of the current stream gauge system and impairs quick response in case of floods if Internet connections are lost.

Robert McAleer, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency said real-time stream gauge data is critical for public safety and the protection of property. "Should [weather satellite] frequencies be lost altogether, our ability to provide warning and protection to the public will be similarly degraded. This is a risk that is wholly avoidable, and a risk the public must not be made to bear."

Strickling said on Thursday NTIA and FCC have not yet made a final decision on how to allocate federal spectrum for the national broadband plan. "We are on a long-term mission here, and when we can identify spectrum that is suitable for wireless broadband and that can be made available with a minimum of disruption to existing federal users, it is incumbent on us to take that spectrum and put it in the bank so that industry knows there will be spectrum available in the future as the market develops and technology evolves," he said.