Spectrum Efficient National Surveillance Radar (SENSR)

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Demand for space and use of 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 vacate portions of the spectrum led to the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2015. 

The Spectrum Pipeline Act states the following:

  • Federal agencies must submit a plan to free a minimum of 30–megahertz (MHz) spectrum below 3.0 gigahertz (GHz) for auction by 2024.
  • Auction proceeds will be provided to the federal agencies to cover relocation or spectrum-sharing costs.
  • Funding is available for feasibility studies to determine if spectrum frequencies could be vacated.
  • A technical panel consisting of representatives from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Commerce’s (DOC) National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will review technical plans for approval prior to any funds transfer.

Spectrum Efficient National Surveillance Radar (SENSR):

In response to the Spectrum Pipeline Act, four agencies – the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – formed a cross-agency team called the Joint Program Office (JPO) to study the feasibility of an initiative called SENSR. The SENSR cross-agency team submitted the SENSR Pipeline Plan to the technical panel, which approved and submitted it to Congress in January 2017 for a mandatory 60-day review. After this review, OMB provided funding to the cross-agency team for the SENSR feasibility study. In August 2018, NOAA recommended the elimination of their high-resolution weather requirements from the SENSR program mission scope in order to decrease program complexity and manage risk. The technical panel approved this change; NOAA continues to serve in an advisory role in the SENSR program.

As a result of its approval of the SENSR Pipeline Plan, OMB has provided approximately $137 million to the SENSR team. Those funds are being used for phase one of the program, which involves research, engineering studies, economic analysis and planning. 

With OMB approval and funding, 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. A feasibility study will identify potential surveillance solutions and evaluate the capability to auction the spectrum by 2024.

The bandwidth would be vacated for 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 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. 

Learn more about the SENSR Program here