This week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) announced a new initiative to improve government coordination of spectrum management. This is welcome news to taxpayers and consumers, and a step in the right direction. While time will tell how effective this initiative will be, it is encouraging to see government agencies work to improve communications and collaboration after the recent debacle of the 5G rollout.
Specifically, as part of this initiative, the FCC and NTIA have agreed to:
- Hold regular high level meetings beginning monthly;
- Update the nearly twenty-year-old Memorandum of Understanding between the agencies;
- Develop a national spectrum strategy;
- Work cooperatively to develop processes for spectrum engineering compatibility analysis; and
- Participate in cross-agency advisory groups to revamp technical collaboration.
As a quick recap, over the past several months, consumers and taxpayers have been caught in the middle of an interagency dispute over the 5G rollout. After the federal government held a record-breaking auction of mid-band spectrum, telecommunications companies faced delays as aviation groups and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned the rollout would cause harmful interference with radio altimeters.
On the aviation side, safety concerns led to the potential of grounding or delays in flights. For telecommunications companies, they had essentially paid for a valuable resource they were now not fully able to utilize. Meanwhile, consumers were left in limbo as disagreements between federal agencies threatened to delay new technologies, disrupt their daily lives, and create substantial uncertainty.
As NTU pointed out at the time, this should have never happened. Airline and telecommunications companies both want and need to serve their customers, but the interagency squabble complicated both of these goals. Bureaucratic delays threaten to create an environment where future spectrum auctions, which raise revenues to address the nation’s skyrocketing debt, become less valuable based on avoidable disputes. It also undermines the goals of the U.S. leading in next generation 5G technology.
This, unfortunately, is not the first interagency dispute on spectrum, and it is not an issue unique to this portion of mid-band spectrum, the C-band. As American Action Forum’s Jeff Westling notes, in the 24 GHz band, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) previously raised concerns about interference with weather collection. Again, while safety concerns are important and should be evaluated, unnecessary delays in Washington do not serve taxpayers or consumers.
The newly confirmed head of the NTIA, Alan Davidson, appeared in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce this week. In his testimony, he stated a top priority for the agency he leads is effective and efficient use of spectrum, as well as recommitting to interagency coordination. Lawmakers should continue to exercise their oversight authority to hold political appointees accountable.
Several lawmakers deserve credit for encouraging this collaborative initiative between the FCC and NTIA, especially Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), John Thune (R-SD), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Representatives Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Bob Latta (R-OH). This agreement is only between the FCC and NTIA, meaning disputes with other federal agencies like the Department of Transportation or Department of Defense may require executive action to mediate. However, it is a positive first step to see government agencies accept their role and hopefully help avoid future unnecessary spectrum squabbles.
Will Yepez is a Policy and Government Affairs Manager for National Taxpayers Union.