Spectrum Coordination Needs to Expand Across More Federal Agencies | Citizens Against Government Waste

Spectrum Coordination Needs to Expand Across More Federal Agencies

The WasteWatcher

After years of disruptive, wasteful, and unnecessary infighting among federal agencies over spectrum, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) signed an updated Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on August 2, 2022.

The signing of the MOU by the two agencies with the largest federal role in spectrum policy is a key step forward to improving intergovernmental cooperation, but it needs to be expanded to other agencies that have actively refused to release their unused spectrum assets for improved communications capabilities across the country, sometimes noting their objections well after FCC proceedings have been concluded.

Spectrum is a limited and valuable resource, as well as an important driver of the U.S. economy.  However, the longstanding lack of intergovernmental coordination has created a barrier to more spectrum becoming available in the pipeline for future private sector and unlicensed uses.  This has occurred whenever spectrum that is either within or adjacent to federal allocations is set aside by the FCC for either auctions, as was the case with the c-band spectrum which was close to but not adjacent to spectrum used for aeronautics in airplanes, or for unlicensed use like the 5.9 GHz band, which had been set aside for one specific technology and was unused for over 20 years. 

The FCC manages nonfederal public and private use of spectrum, and the NTIA manages federal uses for spectrum.  When federal spectrum is to be reallocated, it is critical for other agencies to work with the FCC and NTIA before the reallocation occurs to ensure that the spectrum is put to the best possible use without frequency interference.

As noted by FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in the joint FCC-NTIA announcement, “Next-generation spectrum innovation is going to require next-generation spectrum coordination.  This updated MOU embraces the idea that no single entity can meet this challenge alone. …  We need a whole of government approach – one that draws on the strengths in our national DNA: our hard-wired belief in the creative possibilities of the future, the power of coordination, and the rule of law.”

NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson agreed, stating that, “A spectrum coordination agreement that pre-dates the smartphone is not sufficient to meet the challenges facing our agencies today. … This updated MOU between NTIA and the FCC will deepen our collaboration and improve our ability to anticipate and mitigate serious spectrum issues.”

The MOU helps to address the findings of an August 2, 2022, Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which stated, “NTIA did not have a comprehensive documented process in place to plan its reallocation efforts from start to finish, even though reallocations are complex and can take many years to complete.  For example, a recent spectrum reallocation in the 3.5 GHz band (referred to as the Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service or CBRS) took 10 years to complete.”  GAO also found that “the collaborative mechanisms used by FCC, NTIA, and other relevant agencies to address potential interference among proposed uses of spectrum did not fully reflect leading collaboration practices.”

The GAO report recommended that NTIA develop spectrum reallocation execution plans, and the FCC and NTIA work more collaboratively on spectrum management issues.  But it would be even more effective and less wasteful if every agency to which spectrum has been allocated joins the MOU or comes to a similar agreement with the FCC and NTIA so that future spectrum auctions and allocations are not delayed, and the U.S. can remain the global leader in the race to 5G.