The Spectrum Trap: Why are Federal Agencies Fighting Over Spectrum, and Can They Fix It?

In the wake of several high-profile disagreements about use of the nation’s spectrum, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the Department of Commerce have announced a new Spectrum Coordination Initiative (Initiative), which will involve actions by both agencies to “strengthen the processes for decision making and information sharing and to work cooperatively to resolve spectrum policy issues.” 

The need for coordination arises from the U.S.’s bifurcated approach to spectrum management.  The FCC is responsible for managing all non-federal use of spectrum (including commercial, public safety, enterprise, etc.).  At the same time, NTIA has responsibility for managing federal agencies’ spectrum use.  The two agencies have in place a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to facilitate coordination between federal and non-federal use, and NTIA also participates in FCC spectrum proceedings on behalf of federal agencies to ensure FCC licensees do not cause harmful interference to federal users.  In addition, NTIA is advised by the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC), which includes several federal agencies as members and has an FCC liaison.  The IRAC reviews and provide feedback to NTIA on planned FCC actions.

Under the Initiative, the Chair of the FCC and the Assistant Secretary of NTIA will (1) hold monthly meetings on joint spectrum planning, (2) update the MOU between the agencies, (3) collaborate to help inform development of a national spectrum strategy, (4) work on processes for spectrum engineering compatibility analysis, and (5) foster proactive information sharing.  In testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, NTIA’s Administrator Alan Davidson emphasized that he is “committed to working toward a coordinated, national approach to spectrum use.”

Why enter into this initiative now?  As FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel explained, “Now more than ever we need a whole-of-government approach to spectrum policy.  Over the past few years we’ve seen the cost of not having one—and we need a non-stop effort to fix that.”  The Chairwoman may be alluding to several recent incidents where FCC spectrum decisions have raised concerns with other federal agencies. For example:

  • The FCC adopted rules for commercial use of the C-band spectrum, including for 5G technologies, and auctioned licenses to use the airwaves in January 2021. In November 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration and the aerospace industry raised concerns about harmful interference to radio altimeters from 5G networks operating in the C-band, delaying 5G rollout in areas near airports.   
  • In 2020, the Department of Defense criticized an FCC decision to approve a plan by Ligado to launch a terrestrial broadband service, stating the service would interfere with GPS systems.
  • The U.S. delegation’s preparation for the International Telecommunication Union’s World Radiocommunication Conferences in 2019 (WRC-19) was hampered by “highly contentious” disputes among the FCC, NTIA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) regarding the potential for interference to weather forecasting from 5G operations in the 24 GHz band.

Some have questioned why these federal agency concerns were not resolved through regular coordination channels in a timely manner.   

With new leadership at the FCC and NTIA, it could be an apt time for a fresh start at coordination between these two important agencies and, by extension, improve coordination among other federal agencies that are affected by spectrum management decisions.  A good start is for the Administration to shore up—and for the other federal agencies to respect—NTIA’s role as the manager of federal spectrum.  The hope is that harmonized federal spectrum management policy will lead to optimized use of our nation’s finite spectrum resources, and encourage continued U.S technological leadership.  Time will tell whether the Initiative results in meaningful change and cooperation, or if agencies will continue to butt heads over spectrum.    

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