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.

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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
In a January 2022 letter, FCC affirmed its commitment to implement this recommendation. FCC is working to close gaps in its processes and is considering responsive changes in procedures to improve coordination and cooperation in addressing spectrum sharing and the potential for harmful interference. We will continue to monitor FCC's efforts to implement this recommendation.
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
In a January 2022 letter, FCC affirmed its commitment to implement this recommendation, and noted that noted that FCC is committed to ensuring appropriate, continued coordination and collaboration with federal partner agencies, relying on data driven processes and promoting transparency, as it carries out its spectrum management mission and duties consistent with the law. We will continue to monitor FCC's efforts to implement this recommendation.
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)
Open
In a January 2022 letter, FCC affirmed its commitment to implement this recommendation. FCC is reviewing suggestions for updating the document, as well as monitoring pending legislation that addresses the MOU. We will continue to monitor FCC's efforts to implement this recommendation.
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. Specifically, FCC noted that actions are also underway to finalize its review and update of the General Guidance Document. FCC also stated it has provided input to the State Department on ways to update and improve the document. We will continue to monitor FCC's efforts to implement 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
In a January 2022 letter, FCC affirmed its commitment to implement this recommendation. FCC noted that it continues to offer expertise and experience in guiding the design of studies intended as U.S. contributions to international technical meetings. We will continue to monitor FCC's efforts to implement this recommendation.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
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
In a February 2022 letter, the Department of Commerce said NTIA is developing processes that would supplement applicable laws and regulations that govern spectrum management activities that involve other agencies. NTIA will provide a report on their implementation following internal review and consultation with FCC and the Department of State. We will continue to monitor NTIA's efforts to implement this recommendation.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
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
In a February 2022 letter, the Department of Commerce said NTIA is developing shared goals and outcomes for spectrum management activities that involve collaboration with other agencies, and ways to monitor and track progress. NTIA will provide a report on their implementation following internal review and consultation with FCC and the Department of State. We will continue to monitor NTIA's efforts to implement this recommendation.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
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)
Open
In a February 2022 letter, the Department of Commerce said NTIA is developing ideas for updating the FCC-NTIA Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). NTIA will provide a report on implementation of this recommendation following internal review and consultation with FCC and the Department of State. We will continue to monitor NTIA's efforts to implement this recommendation.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
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
In a February 2022 letter, the Department of Commerce said NTIA has requested that the Department of State initiate a review of the General Guidance Document and has provided input to State for updating it to address key issues such as transparency and collaboration. The letter also noted that State has initiated a revision, and is in the process of consulting with the FCC and NTIA on changes before publishing an update. We will continue to monitor NTIA's efforts to implement this recommendation.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
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
In a February 2022 letter, the Department of Commerce said NTIA is developing procedures to help guide the design of spectrum-sharing and potential interference studies intended as U.S. contributions to World Radio Conference (WRC) technical meetings. NTIA will provide a report on this effort following internal review and consultation with FCC, Department of State, and other federal participants. We will continue to monitor NTIA's efforts to implement this recommendation.
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
In a February 2022 letter, the Department of Commerce said that NOAA has begun to address the recommendation by documenting its processes for participation in domestic spectrum management activities, which is expected to be completed in September 2022. Following the completion of that work, NOAA will begin documenting processes for participation in international spectrum management activities, which it expects to complete in September 2023. We will continue to monitor NOAA's efforts to implement this recommendation.

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