Radio-frequency spectrum (a finite natural resource) enables an array of wireless communications services critical to the U.S. economy and government—including scientific research, national defense, homeland security, and air traffic control. Nearly all usable spectrum has been allocated either by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for federal use, or by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for commercial and nonfederal use.
However, demand for spectrum continues to increase as telecommunications companies deploy 5G networks, and other new technologies that require more spectrum emerge. This puts pressure on NTIA to repurpose spectrum used by federal agencies for commercial use, and highlights the importance of efficiently and effectively managing spectrum.
Examples of Federal and Nonfederal Spectrum Uses
Congress, FCC, and NTIA have taken many actions to address this issue. For example, with congressional authorization, FCC started using auctions to assign many spectrum licenses. In addition to helping promote more efficient use of spectrum, these auctions generated approximately $258.7 billion for the U.S. Treasury from 1994 through January 2022. Additionally, NTIA is working toward a coordinated, national approach to spectrum use and planning to meet current and future demands.
Additional actions that FCC and NTIA could take to improve spectrum management include:
Historical spectrum allocations can leave spectrum tied to outmoded and less valuable services. NTIA is working to reallocate some federally-used spectrum to the private sector to help build mobile networks, including 5G. However, NTIA lacks a formal process for planning these reallocations. By following leading practices in program management, NTIA may be able to more effectively implement reallocations by considering necessary steps, risks, and the likely timeframes involved.
FCC and NTIA regulate the use of spectrum and coordinate with other federal agencies via interagency agreements and groups. Although the agreements and groups use some key collaboration practices, there are no clear processes for resolving matters when agencies cannot agree on issues. By working to improve collaboration, FCC, NTIA, and other agencies will be better positioned to reach agreement on domestic spectrum matters and present a unified U.S. position on international matters.
Experts have noted that, to avoid delays in 5G deployment, the commercial sector needs access to more mid-band spectrum. Although FCC has some efforts under way to make additional mid-band spectrum available, FCC's planning document for 5G does not clearly identify specific and measurable performance goals or measures to manage the spectrum demands for 5G. Without such strategic planning efforts, FCC will be unable to determine the effectiveness of its spectrum management efforts, particularly related to the congested mid-band spectrum that is critical to 5G deployment.