Congressional Leaders Request Review of Federal Spectrum Management

By: Henry Rademacher

Last week, Representatives Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Greg Walden (R-OR) sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting that they review the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) policies regarding federal spectrum allocation.

Congressmen Walden and Pallone, who respectively serve as Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce expressed concerns with what they described as “inefficient management and chaotic processes” on the part of the NTIA. The Congressmen asked the GAO to perform a comprehensive review of the NTIA’s policies on federal spectrum management.

The GAO has not formally reviewed the NTIA’s spectrum policies since 2011, when it released a report titled Spectrum Management: NTIA Planning and Processes Need Strengthening to Promote the Efficient Use of Spectrum by Federal Agencies. In that report, the GAO ominously wrote, “NTIA’s current processes provide limited assurance that federal spectrum use is evaluated from a governmentwide perspective to ensure that decisions will meet the current and future needs of the agencies, as well as the federal government as a whole.”

In their letter, Congressmen Pallone and Walden outline a number of problems with how the NTIA has allocated spectrum in recent years. Most significantly, they contend that because the NTIA itself is a large user of spectrum, there is a possibility for conflicts of interest when they determine how much spectrum to assign to other federal agencies.

According to the Congressmen, “Allowing a single agency that uses spectrum to manage both its and other agencies’ spectrum would risk inefficient use of this precious resource. Each agency is expected to be an advocate for its own spectrum needs, while the NTIA, in advising the President, must be the arbitrator of those potentially conflicting needs.”

Furthermore, Congressmen Pallone and Walden argue that the NTIA has engaged in “inefficient management and chaotic processes… which among other things, undermined the U.S. government’s efforts in international spectrum coordination proceedings.” Recent examples cited by the Congressmen of the NTIA using questionable judgement on spectrum issues include the most recent National Defense Authorization Act, the 24 GHz FCC auction, and the 2.5 GHz FCC docket, all of which took place in 2019.

Pallone and Walden ask that the GAO examine NTIA spectrum policy, and answer the following questions:

1.     How can the NTIA and the FCC improve their process for resolving frequency allocation disputes in shared or adjacent bands and ensure that spectrum is used or shared efficiently?
2.     How can federal spectrum users more productively interact with the NTIA in furtherance of the NTIA’s overall federal spectrum coordination role?
3.     Where more than one federal agency uses a particular band of spectrum, how can the coordination and management process, led by NTIA, be updated and improved?
4.     What additional resources does the NTIA need to best coordinate and manage federal spectrum allocated to the various federal agencies?
5.     How can federal agencies be encouraged to coordinate with NTIA prior to filing comments with the FCC or another independent agency in matters related to telecommunications and information policy?
6.     What lessons can be drawn from breakdowns in the most recent coordination process for the World Radiocommunication Process?  What could the key federal agencies, the NTIA, the FCC, and Department of State, do differently to prevent future breakdowns in this process?

Photo credit: Timothy Neesam (flickr)