The Spectrum Efficient National Surveillance Radar (SENSR) is a cross-agency program formed by FAA and three other partner agencies to assess the feasibility of vacating and auctioning a band of Government-owned radio frequency valued in the billions of dollars. Proceeds from the auction will be used to finance the deployment of a new system to meet the needs of all four agencies, providing surveillance for air traffic, weather, law enforcement, and national defense. The three partner agencies, called the Joint Program Office (JPO), include Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In August 2018, NOAA removed a key weather requirement and largely withdrew from the program, remaining in an advisory role.
The SENSR team has been assessing the technical solutions and completed the Initial Investment Decision (IID) in March 2020 in support of the 2024 auction. In light of recent committee deliberations between the various agencies, a decision was made to extend this date in order to consider more viable solutions moving forward.
Demand for space on the radio spectrum is increasing due to technological innovations such as 4G mobile services and the rapid expansion of wireless internet services. A Presidential mandate calling on federal agencies to free portions of the spectrum led to the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2015 (PDF). This bi-partisan budget control act states the following:
- The program must submit a plan to free 30 MHz spectrum below 3.0 GHz for auction by 2024
- Auction proceeds to cover 110% of relocation or spectrum sharing cost
- $500M appropriated for research, development, and planning
The FAA, DoD, and DHS are examining the feasibility of making 50 MHz of the spectrum available within 1300-1350 MHz. This would be made available through an auction of that spectrum by 2024.
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OMB and the Technical Panel consisting of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), OMB and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) signed and approved the Spectrum Pipeline Plan sent to Congress in January 2017. The program is funded through the Spectrum Reallocation Fund via the SENSR Pipeline Plan.
As a result of the SENSR Pipeline Plan, OMB has provided approximately $137 million to the SENSR JPO Team. Those funds are being used for phase one of the program, which involves research, engineering studies, economic analysis and planning.
Status and Next Steps
The SENSR team has been assessing the feasibility of making 50 MHz of the 1300 to 1350 MHz band available for reallocation for shared federal and non-federal use. The feasibility study will identify potential surveillance solutions and evaluate the capability to auction the spectrum by 2024.
The bandwidth would be vacated for the auction by consolidating functions of certain existing surveillance radar, which would be replaced by a surveillance solution that would address the requirements of all agencies.
Industry engagement is critical in working toward a collaborative resolution of program challenges, so the SENSR team has released multiple Requests for Information (RFIs) to receive industry input on the program's overall approach, feasibility, requirements and acquisition strategy. The responses have assisted the team in refining the program strategy. For example, the team decided to move away from defining the traditional radar specifications to a performance-based requirements approach. This means the government will define the coverage needed and vendors will in turn propose a solution such as a system or a system of systems to meet coverage requirements. Industry partnership is also vital to determining the program's feasibility within the parameters of cost, technical boundaries and schedule requirements for a 2024 auction of available spectrum. A fourth industry event was held in August. The government team engaged with industry Spring 2020 and will continue to do so throughout the draft Screening Information Request (SIR) development and Final SIR release.
The SENSR team achieved Initial Investment Decision (IID) on March 18, 2020 which provided conditional approval for the team to move forward with the investment analysis. This decision was pending policy level support for modifications to the 2015 Pipeline Act that would unlock additional benefits identified by the Joint Program Office (JPO). The proposed changes sought to free up additional spectrum space for wireless users while also providing the most robust surveillance solution to meet the mission of all three agencies. A Policy Coordination Committee (PCC) - made up of executives from the National Security Council (NSC), National Economic Council (NEC), OMB, FCC, NTIA, NEC, NSC, and the White House Policy Council - was established to address these concerns; however, the legislative adjustments lacked favorable support.
In August 2020, the SENSR program was directed by the PCC to shift direction toward a six-month study focused on assessing the feasibility of retuning existing long-range Air Route Surveillance Radars (ARSR-4) and Common Air Route Surveillance Radars (CARSR) in the near term, eventually replacing ARSR-4 systems and those CARSR systems that cannot be retuned with new radar technology within L-band using SENSR auction proceeds. Though SENSR is proceeding in this alternative direction, the continued goal is to free up spectrum for wireless broadband and use the auction proceeds to fund the replacement of aging surveillance systems.
The SENSR program continues to work towards its primary objective of a spectrum auction, though the 2024 date could change as a result of the recent amendments in strategy. Over the course of the next three months, the SENSR team plans to solidify the feasibility of the revised strategy by conducting market research and collaborating with industry partners on how to most effectively move forward in this new direction. The JPO is aiming to issue a final integrated report that will combine the findings of the retuning assessment and the market survey for delivery to the PCC in February 2021.