Is the Federal Spectrum Process Broken?

With the troubles in the federal spectrum allocation process recognized, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the FCC must reinvent their relationship and how they work with other agencies, according to Harold Feld, who is Public Knowledge’s Senior Vice President, practicing law at the intersection of tech, broadband and media policy, in a Forbes article.

The FCC caught a lot of the blame in the recent C-band/altimeter dustup, but Feld noted the Commission doesn’t get much help from the federal agencies. “Although the FCC has the hard job of figuring out how to find more spectrum for Americans, while protecting safety services (like altimeters), the other federal agencies — focused exclusively on their own missions — fight to maintain the status quo.”  

The NTIA works with multiple agencies, such as the FAA, which use government spectrum. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked closely at the NTIA and found it lacks a formalized planning process for these reallocations. And the various agencies that use spectrum don’t use the same processes as the FAA.

The GAO found that the NTIA “lacks plans with objectives and targets, integrated master schedules, and risk assessments” and needs to follow “leading practices in program management.” 

“We cannot continue to lead the world in mobile technology and secure our digital future if the federal government remains at war with itself,” Feld wrote.

The GAO recommended increased communications between the FCC and federal agencies, providing them with advanced notice of its proposed rules so they have time to make their concerns known and, hopefully, to find solutions.

“These are common-sense proposals that require no new laws,” Feld wrote. “FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel assured members of Congress in the wake of the FAA debacle that she is working to implement the GAO’s recommendations. Although some of these efforts are starting to bear fruit, the FAA’s effort to force the FCC to shut down critical new 5G spectrum shows how hard it will be to get federal agencies to cooperate.”

Because federal agencies don’t have authority over each other, according to Feld, it will take political pressure from the other branches of government to move agencies to collaborate with the FCC.

Without that pressure, Feld wrote, “We will continue to see these fights undermine the rollout of much-needed wireless services to all Americans.”

By J. Sharpe Smith, Inside Towers Technology Editor

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