Spectrum Management:

Incentives, Opportunities, and Testing Needed to Enhance Spectrum Sharing

GAO-13-7: Published: Nov 14, 2012. Publicly Released: Nov 14, 2012.

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goldsteinm@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

Some spectrum users may lack incentive to share spectrum or otherwise use it efficiently, and federal agencies and private users currently cannot easily identify spectrum available for sharing. Typically, paying the market price for a good or service helps to inform users of the value of the good and provides an incentive for efficient use. Federal agencies, however, pay only a small fee to the NTIA for spectrum assignments and therefore have little incentive to share spectrum. Federal agencies also face concerns that sharing could risk the success of security or safety missions, or could be costly in terms of upgrades to more spectrally efficient equipment. Nonfederal users, such as private companies, are also reluctant to share spectrum. For instance, license holders may be reluctant to encourage additional competition, and companies may be hesitant to enter into sharing agreements that require potentially lengthy and unpredictable regulatory processes. Sharing can be costly for them, too. For example, nonfederal users may be required to cover all interference mitigation costs to use a federal spectrum band, which might include multiple federal users. Sharing can also be hindered because information on federal spectrum use is lacking and information regarding some federal spectrum use may never be publicly available, a situation that makes it difficult for users to identify potential spectrum for sharing.

Federal advisors, agency officials, and experts have identified several options that could provide greater incentives and opportunities for more efficient spectrum use and sharing by federal and nonfederal users. These options include, among other things: considering spectrum usage fees to provide economic incentive for more efficient use and sharing; identifying more spectrum that could be made available for unlicensed use, since unlicensed use is inherently shared; encouraging research and development of technologies that can better enable sharing; and improving and expediting regulatory processes related to sharing. However, these options involve implementation challenges. For example, setting spectrum usage fees for federal users may not result in creating the proper incentives, because agency budgets might simply be increased to accommodate their current use. While new technologies that overcome some of the inherent challenges with sharing spectrum are being developed, proving those technologies under real-world conditions can be difficult, and few incentives exist at the federal level to encourage such technology development. Finally, FCC and NTIA have taken some actions to potentially reduce the amount of time and even the need for potential rulemakings sometimes associated with spectrum sharing, but stakeholders and experts suggested that more could be done to expedite the approval process, such as automating some steps and developing better capabilities to track the status of spectrum-sharing applications. However, any changes to federal regulatory processes related to spectrum management and sharing would need to be carefully studied with respect to potential benefits and costs.

Why GAO Did This Study

The increasing popularity of wireless devices that use spectrum, combined with federal spectrum needs for national defense and other public safety activities, have created concerns that a "spectrum crunch" is looming. However, there is also evidence that at any given time or place, spectrum lies fallow or is only intermittently used. In an effort to use spectrum as efficiently as possible, advisory groups and others have proposed solutions to share spectrum.

This requested report examines (1) what factors prevent users from sharing spectrum more frequently and (2) what actions the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Communications Information Administration (NTIA), and others can take to encourage more sharing and efficient spectrum use. GAO reviewed plans and documents from FCC and NTIA regarding their management of nonfederal and federal spectrum-sharing activities, respectively. GAO also interviewed federal and commercial spectrum users, industry and academic experts, and other stakeholders.

What GAO Recommends

FCC and NTIA should jointly (1) report to Congress on the potential merits and effects of a spectrum fee, (2) determine how to best promote spectrum research and development, and (3) evaluate what regulatory changes might improve the spectrum sharing process. The agencies generally agreed with GAO's findings but identified ongoing efforts that address the recommendations. GAO has modified the recommendations as described further in the report.

For more information, contact Mark Goldstein at (202) 512-2834 or goldsteinm@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2012, we found that users, including federal agencies, lack incentives to share spectrum. Spectrum usage fees are one option for addressing the incentive problem and can be designed to promote the efficient use of spectrum by compelling users to recognize the value to society of the spectrum that they use. Toward this end, the National Broadband Plan recommended that Congress consider granting FCC and National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) authority to impose fees on unauctioned spectrum license holders as well as government users. Yet, designing a fee system is fraught with numerous obstacles and challenges, such as how such fees should be incorporated into agency budgets and the appropriations process in order to create the right incentives. A full evaluation of the potential benefits and impacts of implementing a fee structure would be a potential step in identifying the most prudent and effective approach. We therefore recommended that FCC and NTIA report to Congress their agencies' views on the merits, potential effects, and implementation challenges of such a fee structure, and what authority, if any, Congress would need to grant for such a structure to be implemented. In response, FCC reported to Congress in January 2013 that it should have broad authority to adopt measures that create incentives for more efficient use of spectrum, and that spectrum fees and other economic mechanisms would be useful spectrum management tools. FCC further reported that Congress could grant FCC such authority as part of Title III of the Communications Act of 1934, which includes provisions relating to conditions that attach to wireless licenses. In addition, the NTIA has worked with the Spectrum Policy Team, which tasked the Science and Technology Policy Institute to review analysis and proposals regarding incentives for agencies to share or relinquish spectrum. The Institute?s January 2014 report identifies and characterizes various approaches to providing incentives to federal agencies to increase spectrum efficiency. The report concluded that, while spectrum usage fees could potentially incentivize federal agencies to use spectrum more efficiently, the issues surrounding implementation within the context of the budget appropriation process remain a significant challenge to the approach's feasibility. Stakeholder comments on the report were split on whether spectrum user fees would be effective or implementable. The findings of this report, along with the information FCC provided to Congress have given Congress sufficient information to make prudent decisions regarding proposals to introduce spectrum usage fees.

    Recommendation: To better identify the most feasible incentives to promote spectrum efficiency and sharing, the NTIA Administrator and the FCC Chairman should jointly report their agencies' views and conclusions regarding spectrum usage fees to the relevant congressional committees, specifically with respect to the merits, potential effects, and implementation challenges of such a fee structure, and what authority, if any, Congress would need to grant for such a structure to be implemented.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Telecommunications and Information Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2012, we found that users, including federal agencies, lack incentives to share spectrum. Spectrum usage fees are one option for addressing the incentive problem and can be designed to promote the efficient use of spectrum by compelling users to recognize the value to society of the spectrum that they use. Toward this end, the National Broadband Plan recommended that Congress consider granting FCC and National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) authority to impose fees on unauctioned spectrum license holders as well as government users. Yet, designing a fee system is fraught with numerous obstacles and challenges, such as how such fees should be incorporated into agency budgets and the appropriations process in order to create the right incentives. A full evaluation of the potential benefits and impacts of implementing a fee structure would be a potential step in identifying the most prudent and effective approach. We therefore recommended that FCC and NTIA report to Congress their agencies' views on the merits, potential effects, and implementation challenges of such a fee structure, and what authority, if any, Congress would need to grant for such a structure to be implemented. In response, FCC reported to Congress in January 2013 that it should have broad authority to adopt measures that create incentives for more efficient use of spectrum, and that spectrum fees and other economic mechanisms would be useful spectrum management tools. FCC further reported that Congress could grant FCC such authority as part of Title III of the Communications Act of 1934, which includes provisions relating to conditions that attach to wireless licenses. In addition, the NTIA has worked with the Spectrum Policy Team, which tasked the Science and Technology Policy Institute to review analysis and proposals regarding incentives for agencies to share or relinquish spectrum. The Institute?s January 2014 report identifies and characterizes various approaches to providing incentives to federal agencies to increase spectrum efficiency. The report concluded that, while spectrum usage fees could potentially incentivize federal agencies to use spectrum more efficiently, the issues surrounding implementation within the context of the budget appropriation process remain a significant challenge to the approach's feasibility. Stakeholder comments on the report were split on whether spectrum user fees would be effective or implementable. The findings of this report, along with the information FCC provided to Congress have given Congress sufficient information to make prudent decisions regarding proposals to introduce spectrum usage fees.

    Recommendation: To better identify the most feasible incentives to promote spectrum efficiency and sharing, the NTIA Administrator and the FCC Chairman should jointly report their agencies' views and conclusions regarding spectrum usage fees to the relevant congressional committees, specifically with respect to the merits, potential effects, and implementation challenges of such a fee structure, and what authority, if any, Congress would need to grant for such a structure to be implemented.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2012, we reported that Federal advisors and experts have identified several options that could provide incentives and opportunities for more efficient spectrum use and sharing, by federal and nonfederal users. One such option was encouraging research, development and testing of technologies that can better enable sharing and improve spectral efficiency. Several technological advances promise to make sharing easier, but are still at early stages of development and testing. Although industry participants indicated that extensive testing under realistic conditions is critical to conducting basic research on spectrum efficient technologies, we found that only a few companies are involved in such research and may experience challenges in the testing process, and few incentives exist at the federal level to encourage such technology development. We have previously reported that the federal government--in this case FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) who have responsibility for managing spectrum--has a key role in performing or otherwise encouraging research that the private industry would not do on its own. If there are continued limitations to accessing spectrum for testing, it may be impossible to validate technologies under realistic conditions, further delaying the availability of these technologies to users and the opening of new market opportunities and economic growth. We therefore recommended that FCC and NTIA determine how the federal government can best promote federal and nonfederal investment in the research and development of spectrally efficient technologies, and whether additional spectrum is needed for testing new spectrum efficient technologies. In response, FCC identified numerous spectrum-related research and development activities that it has participated in that involve federal agencies, academia and industry. These include the Wireless Spectrum Research and Development Group, which coordinates spectrum-related activities across the federal government; the International Symposium on Advanced Radio Technologies, which promotes the development of advanced radio communications technologies; and the Enhancing Access to Radio Spectrum Program, which funds interdisciplinary research on ways to increase spectrum efficiency and expand access to wireless-enabled services. In addition, in January 2013 FCC adopted significant changes to the experimental licensing rules, adding three new types of licenses and streamlining the existing rules for experimenting, testing and marketing new devices, without the need for any spectrum set-aside. NTIA has also taken numerous actions in response. For example, along with the National Institute for Standards and Technology, NTIA created the new Center for Advanced Communications to promote interdisciplinary research, development, and testing in several areas, including spectrum sharing. The Center will develop multiuser testbeds that allow government and industry researchers to measure and evaluate the performance of new advanced spectrum-sharing technologies. Finally, NTIA and FCC are exploring ways to facilitate the establishment of a "Model City" program for demonstrating and evaluating advanced spectrum sharing technologies. In July 2014 a joint NTIA, FCC Public Notice requesting information on the formation of the Model City was issued. As a next step in the potential formation of the Model City, in April of 2015, NTIA and FCC held a workshop with interested Model City stakeholders from industry, government and academia, to further explore the development of, and alternatives for, concept, scope, governance framework and technical considerations. As a result of these efforts, research, development and testing of spectrum sharing technologies has been significantly enhanced and broadened, which ultimately can result in more efficient use of this finite, and valuable commodity.

    Recommendation: To better identify the most feasible incentives to promote spectrum efficiency and sharing, the NTIA Administrator and the FCC Chairman should jointly, based on the findings of current research and development efforts under way, determine how the federal government can best promote federal and nonfederal investment in the research and development of spectrally efficient technologies, and whether additional spectrum is needed for testing new spectrum efficient technologies

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Telecommunications and Information Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2012, we reported that Federal advisors and experts have identified several options that could provide incentives and opportunities for more efficient spectrum use and sharing, by federal and nonfederal users. One such option was encouraging research, development and testing of technologies that can better enable sharing and improve spectral efficiency. Several technological advances promise to make sharing easier, but are still at early stages of development and testing. Although industry participants indicated that extensive testing under realistic conditions is critical to conducting basic research on spectrum efficient technologies, we found that only a few companies are involved in such research and may experience challenges in the testing process, and few incentives exist at the federal level to encourage such technology development. We have previously reported that the federal government--in this case FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) who have responsibility for managing spectrum--has a key role in performing or otherwise encouraging research that the private industry would not do on its own. If there are continued limitations to accessing spectrum for testing, it may be impossible to validate technologies under realistic conditions, further delaying the availability of these technologies to users and the opening of new market opportunities and economic growth. We therefore recommended that FCC and NTIA determine how the federal government can best promote federal and nonfederal investment in the research and development of spectrally efficient technologies, and whether additional spectrum is needed for testing new spectrum efficient technologies. In response, FCC identified numerous spectrum-related research and development activities that it has participated in that involve federal agencies, academia and industry. These include the Wireless Spectrum Research and Development Group, which coordinates spectrum-related activities across the federal government; the International Symposium on Advanced Radio Technologies, which promotes the development of advanced radio communications technologies; and the Enhancing Access to Radio Spectrum Program, which funds interdisciplinary research on ways to increase spectrum efficiency and expand access to wireless-enabled services. In addition, in January 2013 FCC adopted significant changes to the experimental licensing rules, adding three new types of licenses and streamlining the existing rules for experimenting, testing and marketing new devices, without the need for any spectrum set-aside. NTIA has also taken numerous actions in response. For example, along with the National Institute for Standards and Technology, NTIA created the new Center for Advanced Communications to promote interdisciplinary research, development, and testing in several areas, including spectrum sharing. The Center will develop multiuser testbeds that allow government and industry researchers to measure and evaluate the performance of new advanced spectrum-sharing technologies. Finally, NTIA and FCC are exploring ways to facilitate the establishment of a "Model City" program for demonstrating and evaluating advanced spectrum sharing technologies. In July 2014 a joint NTIA, FCC Public Notice requesting information on the formation of the Model City was issued. As a next step in the potential formation of the Model City, in April of 2015, NTIA and FCC held a workshop with interested Model City stakeholders from industry, government and academia, to further explore the development of, and alternatives for, concept, scope, governance framework and technical considerations. As a result of these efforts, research, development and testing of spectrum sharing technologies has been significantly enhanced and broadened, which ultimately can result in more efficient use of this finite, and valuable commodity.

    Recommendation: To better identify the most feasible incentives to promote spectrum efficiency and sharing, the NTIA Administrator and the FCC Chairman should jointly, based on the findings of current research and development efforts under way, determine how the federal government can best promote federal and nonfederal investment in the research and development of spectrally efficient technologies, and whether additional spectrum is needed for testing new spectrum efficient technologies

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2012, we reported that Federal advisors and experts have identified several options that could provide incentives and opportunities for more efficient spectrum use and sharing, by federal and nonfederal users. One such option was improving and expediting regulatory processing related to sharing. FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) have taken some actions to potentially reduce the amount of time and even the need for potential rulemakings sometimes associated with spectrum sharing, but stakeholders and experts suggested that more could be done to expedite the approval process, such as automating some steps and developing better capabilities to track the status of spectrum-sharing applications. We therefore recommended that FCC and NTIA evaluate regulatory changes, if any, that can help improve and expedite the spectrum-sharing process. In response, FCC and NTIA have worked in close collaboration on multiple regulatory proceedings, including assessing the viability of commercial wireless systems sharing the 1755-1850 MHz band with federal systems and providing access to the additional unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band using advanced sharing techniques, which led to a final rule being adopted in March 2014; and assessing rules for access to the 3550-3650 MHz band for small cell technology and other uses, which is an ongoing evaluation. For example, in support of the proceeding on the 3550-3650 MHz band, NTIA and FCC engineers are jointly working with the Department of Defense to reduce the size of exclusion zones to protect shipborne radar systems, but also allow for the effective operation of new wireless broadband systems. FCC has also improved the transparency and coordination of its joint spectrum planning activities with NTIA by making modifications to its Frequency Assignment System in April 2014 to streamline processing of FCC approvals of U.S. Government sharing requests. These changes include allowing records from NTIA to be stored in FCC?s system so that the fields are searchable, and automatically sending a properly formatted record to NTIA when an FCC engineer has entered FCC?s vote on a sharing request. In addition, NTIA, together with its appointed experts on the Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee (CSMAC), are evaluating additional regulatory changes to promote spectrum sharing. For example, the CSMAC's Enforcement Subcommittee, in coordination with the FCC's Technical Advisory Committee, is helping NTIA develop new strategies for responding more efficiently to an increasingly complex interference and enforcement environment. Further, another CSMAC subcommittee is outlining for NTIA various sharing scenarios that would enable increased federal use of nonfederal spectrum and evaluating regulatory options for addressing conflicts and finding alternative spectrum access mechanisms. This increases emphasis on collaboration and mechanisms to expedite sharing requests, and address interference and conflicts has improved the spectrum sharing process, which in turn can lead to more efficient use of the spectrum in the bands cited above.

    Recommendation: To better identify the most feasible incentives to promote spectrum efficiency and sharing, the NTIA Administrator and the FCC Chairman should jointly should evaluate regulatory changes, if any, that can help improve and expedite the spectrum sharing process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Telecommunications and Information Administration

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2012, we reported that Federal advisors and experts have identified several options that could provide incentives and opportunities for more efficient spectrum use and sharing, by federal and nonfederal users. One such option was improving and expediting regulatory processing related to sharing. FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) have taken some actions to potentially reduce the amount of time and even the need for potential rulemakings sometimes associated with spectrum sharing, but stakeholders and experts suggested that more could be done to expedite the approval process, such as automating some steps and developing better capabilities to track the status of spectrum-sharing applications. We therefore recommended that FCC and NTIA evaluate regulatory changes, if any, that can help improve and expedite the spectrum-sharing process. In response, FCC and NTIA have worked in close collaboration on multiple regulatory proceedings, including assessing the viability of commercial wireless systems sharing the 1755-1850 MHz band with federal systems and providing access to the additional unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band using advanced sharing techniques, which led to a final rule being adopted in March 2014; and assessing rules for access to the 3550-3650 MHz band for small cell technology and other uses, which is an ongoing evaluation. For example, in support of the proceeding on the 3550-3650 MHz band, NTIA and FCC engineers are jointly working with the Department of Defense to reduce the size of exclusion zones to protect shipborne radar systems, but also allow for the effective operation of new wireless broadband systems. FCC has also improved the transparency and coordination of its joint spectrum planning activities with NTIA by making modifications to its Frequency Assignment System in April 2014 to streamline processing of FCC approvals of U.S. Government sharing requests. These changes include allowing records from NTIA to be stored in FCC?s system so that the fields are searchable, and automatically sending a properly formatted record to NTIA when an FCC engineer has entered FCC?s vote on a sharing request. In addition, NTIA, together with its appointed experts on the Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee (CSMAC), are evaluating additional regulatory changes to promote spectrum sharing. For example, the CSMAC's Enforcement Subcommittee, in coordination with the FCC's Technical Advisory Committee, is helping NTIA develop new strategies for responding more efficiently to an increasingly complex interference and enforcement environment. Further, another CSMAC subcommittee is outlining for NTIA various sharing scenarios that would enable increased federal use of nonfederal spectrum and evaluating regulatory options for addressing conflicts and finding alternative spectrum access mechanisms. This increases emphasis on collaboration and mechanisms to expedite sharing requests, and address interference and conflicts has improved the spectrum sharing process, which in turn can lead to more efficient use of the spectrum in the bands cited above.

    Recommendation: To better identify the most feasible incentives to promote spectrum efficiency and sharing, the NTIA Administrator and the FCC Chairman should jointly should evaluate regulatory changes, if any, that can help improve and expedite the spectrum sharing process.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

 

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