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Spectrum Management: Agencies Should Strengthen Collaborative Mechanisms and Processes to Address Potential Interference

GAO-21-474 Published: Jun 29, 2021. Publicly Released: Jul 19, 2021.
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Fast Facts

In the U.S., the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration regulate use of radio-frequency spectrum to help ensure there's enough available for 5G networks, satellites, and everything else. When there could be interference, FCC and NTIA coordinate with other federal agencies via interagency agreements and groups.

The agreements and groups use some key collaboration practices but not others. For example, there are no clear processes for resolving matters when agencies can't agree on issues.

We recommended that FCC and NTIA update and clarify various documents and processes to better coordinate on spectrum management.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) regulate and manage spectrum, and other agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are among federal spectrum users. To address potential interference among proposed uses of spectrum, these agencies employ various coordination mechanisms. For domestic matters, the agencies coordinate through an NTIA-led committee that provides input to FCC's spectrum proceedings. For U.S. participation in the International Telecommunication Union's (ITU) World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRC), agencies coordinate via a preparatory committee that provides input used to develop U.S. positions that the Department of State submits to a regional body or directly to the WRC (see figure).

Technical Coordination Process for U.S. Participation in WRC

Technical Coordination Process for U.S. Participation in WRC

These mechanisms reflect some key collaboration practices but do not fully reflect others. For example, while the documents that guide coordination between FCC and NTIA and the preparatory committee emphasize reaching consensus whenever possible, there are no clearly defined and agreed-upon processes for resolving matters when agencies cannot do so. Additionally, neither document has been updated in almost 20 years, though agency officials said conditions regarding spectrum management activities have changed in that time. GAO's review of U.S. participation in ITU's 2019 WRC shows that these issues affected collaboration. For example, disputes among the agencies and the inability to reach agreement on U.S. technical contributions challenged the U.S.'s ability to present an agreed-upon basis for decisions or a unified position.

NOAA and NASA conduct and FCC and NTIA review technical interference studies on a case-by-case basis. When originating from ITU activities, the agencies conduct or review technical interference studies through participation in international technical meetings and the preparatory committee process. However, the lack of consensus on study design and, within the U.S. process, specific procedures to guide the design of these types of studies, hampered U.S. efforts to prepare for the 2019 WRC. For example, the U.S. did not submit its studies on certain key issues to the final technical meeting, resulting in some stakeholders questioning whether the corresponding U.S. positions were technically rooted. Agreed-upon procedures could help guide U.S. efforts to design these studies and consider tradeoffs between what is desirable versus practical, to mitigate the possibility of protracted disagreements in the future.

Why GAO Did This Study

Spectrum is a scarce resource that supports vital services, such as mobile communications and Earth-observing satellites. In the U.S., FCC and NTIA regulate and manage nonfederal and federal spectrum use, respectively, while the ITU sets global regulations and hosts conferences to update them. Recent U.S. and ITU activities have sought to designate spectrum for possible 5G use and to study how to do so without causing harmful interference to other uses, particularly satellites like those operated by NOAA and NASA that contribute to weather forecasting and climate science.

GAO was asked to review how agencies coordinate on and study these matters. Among other objectives, this report examines: (1) the extent that cognizant federal agencies follow leading practices in collaborating on potential interference effects on weather forecasting and (2) their processes to conduct and review technical interference studies. GAO reviewed documentation and interviewed officials from FCC, NTIA, NOAA, and NASA; analyzed how various agency mechanisms and processes were implemented during recent FCC and ITU spectrum-management activities; and compared agencies' efforts to key collaboration practices and applicable key elements of a sound research process.

Recommendations

GAO is making 11 recommendations, including that FCC and NTIA collaborate to update or clarify various documents and processes related to spectrum-management coordination. The agencies generally agreed to implement the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Communications Commission The Chair of FCC should establish clearly defined and agreed-upon processes for making decisions on spectrum-management activities that involve other agencies, particularly when consensus cannot be reached, in consultation with NTIA and—as appropriate—State. (Recommendation 1)
Open
FCC agreed to implement this recommendation and has taken steps to do so. Previously, FCC and NTIA signed an updated Memorandum of Understanding that, according to FCC officials, is part of establishing an agreed-upon process for making decisions on spectrum-management activities that involve other agencies. As the MOU focuses on FCC's coordination with NTIA, we are awaiting additional information from FCC about processes for resolving conflicts with other agencies. In August 2023, FCC officials explained that NTIA is the lead agency for communicating about spectrum issues with other federal agencies, but agreed to contact NTIA about whether FCC should further clarify its role in federal spectrum management and related communication with other federal agencies. We will continue to monitor FCC's efforts as it implements this recommendation in consultation with NTIA. By establishing clearly defined and agreed-upon processes, FCC will be better positioned to work collaboratively to make important spectrum-management decisions, particularly when consensus cannot be reached.
Federal Communications Commission The Chair of FCC should clarify and further identify shared goals or outcomes for spectrum-management activities that involve collaboration and ways to monitor and track progress, in consultation with NTIA and—as appropriate—State. (Recommendation 2)
Open
FCC agreed to implement this recommendation and has taken steps to do so. Previously, FCC and NTIA signed an updated Memorandum of Understanding that, according to FCC officials, is part of clarifying and further identifying shared goals for spectrum-management activities that involve collaboration. In August 2023, FCC officials told us they have established a process to monitor and track progress on collaborative efforts, and we requested documentation of that process. We will continue to monitor FCC's efforts as it implements this recommendation in consultation with NTIA. By clarifying shared goals and ways to monitor and track progress, FCC will be better positioned to work collaboratively on spectrum-management activities, particularly when overcoming conflicting interests.
Federal Communications Commission The Chair of FCC should update the FCC-NTIA MOU to address identified gaps (such as the lack of clearly defined goals and agreed-upon processes for making decisions) and develop a means to continually monitor and update this agreement, in consultation with NTIA. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
Spectrum is a scarce resource that supports vital services, such as mobile communications and Earth-observing satellites. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the Department of Commerce regulate and manage nonfederal and federal spectrum use, respectively. In June 2021, we reported on the extent that these agencies follow leading practices in collaborating on potential interference effects on weather forecasting. We found that the agencies' collaborative mechanisms and activities reviewed did not fully reflect leading collaboration practices, including the practice of developing written guidance and agreements with ways to continually monitor and update them-a practice that can strengthen agencies' commitments to working together. One of the key collaborative mechanisms that FCC and NTIA use is a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that guides their overall coordination on spectrum management, particularly for domestic matters. However, this MOU had not been updated in nearly 20 years, and we found that the MOU did not reflect recent changes in the spectrum management landscape overall. For example, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a federal spectrum user, said that while behaviors and the overarching environment had changed because of the increased need for spectrum sharing and thus, more complex decision-making, the guidance had not evolved accordingly. Additionally, because the MOU had not been regularly updated, the agreement had not kept pace with process adjustments made through the years or with the changing nature of the spectrum environment, including increased use of and demand for spectrum. Thus, the MOU did not reflect the increasing pressures on FCC's and NTIA's collaborative efforts as spectrum managers. Furthermore, we identified other gaps in the agencies' collaborative mechanisms that an updated MOU could help address, such as a lack of clearly defined goals and agreed-upon processes for making decisions. Consequently, we recommended that FCC update the FCC-NTIA MOU to address identified gaps and develop a means to continually monitor and update this agreement, in consultation with NTIA. In January 2023, we confirmed that FCC had taken action to implement this recommendation. Specifically, FCC and NTIA jointly issued an updated MOU in August 2022, and FCC officials confirmed in January 2023 that this updated MOU was intended to fully address our recommendation. The MOU relates to coordination between FCC and NTIA as federal spectrum management agencies to promote the efficient use of spectrum in the public interest. The MOU states that the agencies agree to reassess the MOU not later than 4 years after its effective date and, at a minimum, every 4 years thereafter, to ensure it reflects changing circumstances. Having this updated MOU should better ensure effective collaboration between FCC and NTIA in their roles as federal spectrum managers.
Federal Communications Commission The Chair of FCC should request that State initiate a review of the General Guidance Document—in consultation with FCC, NTIA, and other relevant participants—and update and develop a means to continually monitor and update this document. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In a January 2022 letter, FCC affirmed its commitment to implement this recommendation. In August 2023, FCC officials told us that they had requested that State update the document and sent suggested revisions. We asked FCC officials to provide documentation of this request, which we are awaiting. We will continue to monitor FCC's efforts as it implements this recommendation.
Federal Communications Commission The Chair of FCC should establish procedures to help guide the design (including selection of acceptable assumptions and methodologies) of spectrum-sharing and potential-interference studies intended as U.S. contributions to WRC technical meetings, in consultation with NTIA, State, and other federal participants of the U.S. technical preparatory process. (Recommendation 5)
Open
FCC agreed to implement this recommendation from our June 2021 report on spectrum management and has re-iterated its commitment to doing so. Previously, FCC officials told us that FCC is committed to implementing this recommendation and said that actions to do so are a work in progress. As of February 2024, we are continuing to monitor FCC's actions to implement this recommendation in collaboration with NTIA. Establishing specific procedures for the design of spectrum-sharing and potential-interference studies intended as U.S. contributions to WRC technical meetings may help guide agencies' efforts to resolve disagreements like those experienced in the past.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Priority Rec.
The NTIA Administrator should establish clearly defined and agreed-upon processes for making decisions on spectrum-management activities that involve other agencies, particularly when consensus cannot be reached, in consultation with FCC and—as appropriate—State. (Recommendation 6)
Open
NTIA agreed to implement this recommendation from our June 2021 report and has taken steps to do so. Previously, FCC and NTIA signed an updated Memorandum of Understanding that, according to officials, is part of establishing an agreed-upon process for making decisions on spectrum-management activities that involve other agencies. As the MOU focuses on NTIA's coordination with FCC, we are awaiting additional information about processes for resolving conflicts with other agencies. In January 2024, NTIA officials explained that the National Spectrum Strategy NTIA released in November 2023 and implementation of the strategy will further address this recommendation. The strategy states, for example, that NTIA will develop and document an evidence-based national spectrum decision-making methodology and that NTIA, in collaboration with FCC and in coordination with other federal agencies, will prepare and publish an implementation plan for the new strategy. We will continue to monitor NTIA's efforts as it implements this recommendation. By establishing clearly defined and agreed-upon processes, NTIA will be better positioned to work collaboratively to make important spectrum-management decisions, particularly when consensus cannot be reached.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Priority Rec.
The NTIA Administrator should clarify and further identify shared goals or outcomes for spectrum-management activities that involve collaboration and ways to monitor and track progress, in consultation with FCC and—as appropriate—State. (Recommendation 7)
Open
NTIA agreed to implement this recommendation from our June 2021 report and has taken steps to do so. In January 2024, NTIA officials explained that the National Spectrum Strategy NTIA released in November 2023 and implementation of the strategy will further address this recommendation. The strategy states, for example, that NTIA, in collaboration with FCC and in coordination with other federal agencies, will prepare and publish an implementation plan that establishes spectrum outcomes associated with each of the strategy's strategic objectives. We will continue to monitor NTIA's efforts as it implements this recommendation. By clarifying shared goals and ways to monitor and track progress, NTIA will be better positioned to work collaboratively on spectrum-management activities, particularly when overcoming conflicting interests.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Priority Rec.
The NTIA Administrator should update the FCC-NTIA MOU to address identified gaps (such as the lack of clearly defined goals and agreed-upon processes for making decisions) and develop a means to continually monitor and update this agreement, in consultation with FCC. (Recommendation 8)
Closed – Implemented
Spectrum is a scarce resource that supports vital services, such as mobile communications and Earth-observing satellites. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the Department of Commerce regulate and manage nonfederal and federal spectrum use, respectively. In June 2021, we reported on the extent that these agencies follow leading practices in collaborating on potential interference effects on weather forecasting. We found that the agencies' collaborative mechanisms and activities reviewed did not fully reflect leading collaboration practices, including the practice of developing written guidance and agreements with ways to continually monitor and update them-a practice that can strengthen agencies' commitments to working together. One of the key collaborative mechanisms that FCC and NTIA use is a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that guides their overall coordination on spectrum management, particularly for domestic matters. However, this MOU had not been updated in nearly 20 years, and we found that the MOU did not reflect recent changes in the spectrum management landscape overall. For example, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a federal spectrum user, said that while behaviors and the overarching environment had changed because of the increased need for spectrum sharing and thus, more complex decision-making, the guidance had not evolved accordingly. Additionally, because the MOU had not been regularly updated, the agreement had not kept pace with process adjustments made through the years or with the changing nature of the spectrum environment, including increased use of and demand for spectrum. Thus, the MOU did not reflect the increasing pressures on FCC's and NTIA's collaborative efforts as spectrum managers. Furthermore, we identified other gaps in the agencies' collaborative mechanisms that an updated MOU could help address, such as a lack of clearly defined goals and agreed-upon processes for making decisions. Consequently, we recommended that NTIA update the FCC-NTIA MOU to address identified gaps and develop a means to continually monitor and update this agreement, in consultation with FCC. In January 2023, we confirmed that NTIA had taken action to implement this recommendation. Specifically, FCC and NTIA jointly issued an updated MOU in August 2022, and NTIA officials confirmed in January 2023 that this updated MOU was intended to fully address our recommendation. The MOU relates to coordination between FCC and NTIA as federal spectrum management agencies to promote the efficient use of spectrum in the public interest. The MOU states that the agencies agree to reassess the MOU not later than 4 years after its effective date and, at a minimum, every 4 years thereafter, to ensure it reflects changing circumstances. Having this updated MOU should better ensure effective collaboration between FCC and NTIA in their roles as federal spectrum managers.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Priority Rec.
The NTIA Administrator should request that State initiate a review of the General Guidance Document—in consultation with NTIA, FCC, and other relevant participants—and update and develop a means to continually monitor and update this document. (Recommendation 9)
Open
NTIA agreed to implement this recommendation from our June 2021 report and has taken steps to do so. Previously, in a February 2022 letter, the Department of Commerce said NTIA had requested that the Department of State initiate a review of the General Guidance Document and had provided input to State for updating it to address key issues such as transparency and collaboration. In January 2024, NTIA officials told us that NTIA expects to begin coordinating again with State on this recommendation soon, now that the 2023 World Radio Communication Conference has concluded. We will continue to monitor NTIA's efforts as it implements this recommendation.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Priority Rec.
The NTIA Administrator should establish procedures to help guide the design (including selection of acceptable assumptions and methodologies) of spectrum-sharing and potential-interference studies intended as U.S. contributions to WRC technical meetings, in consultation with FCC, State, and other federal participants of the U.S. technical preparatory process. (Recommendation 10)
Open
NTIA agreed to implement this recommendation from our June 2021 report and has taken steps to do so. In January 2024, NTIA officials explained that the National Spectrum Strategy NTIA released in November 2023 and implementation of the strategy will further address this recommendation. The strategy states, for example, that the U.S. Government will formalize its best practices for conducting technical, scientific, mission, and economic analyses in support of spectrum management decisions, to provide greater visibility into, and acceptance of, key studies, and to reduce contention and disputes of findings. It also states that NTIA, in collaboration with FCC and in coordination with other federal agencies, will prepare and publish an implementation plan for the new strategy. We will continue to monitor NTIA's efforts as it implements this recommendation. Establishing specific procedures for the design of spectrum-sharing and potential-interference studies intended as U.S. contributions to WRC technical meetings may help guide agencies' efforts to resolve disagreements like those experienced in the past.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration The NOAA Administrator should clarify and document NOAA's internal processes for identifying and raising concerns about potential interference to NOAA satellite instruments. (Recommendation 11)
Open – Partially Addressed
Previously, NOAA completed the first of two planned actions to address this recommendation. Specifically, NOAA created a Domestic Spectrum Management Process guidance document which, among other things, identifies the processes NOAA uses to identify and raise concerns about potential spectrum interference issues in domestic fora. As of January 2024, NOAA indicated that it intends to clarify and document its internal processes for international fora as well, with an anticipated completion date of September 2024 (subject to resource availability). We will continue to monitor NOAA's efforts to implement this recommendation.

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Advisory committeesBroadcasting standardsCommunicationsInternal controlsSatellitesSpectrum managementSpectrum sharingTelecommunicationsWeather forecastingClimate