GAO: FCC, NTIA Need to Update, Better Coordinate Spectrum Management

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The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended that the FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) update and clarify various documents and processes to better coordinate on spectrum management.

In the U.S., the FCC and NTIA regulate use of RF spectrum to help ensure there’s enough available for 5G networks, satellites and other uses. When there may be interference, the FCC and NTIA coordinate with other federal agencies via interagency agreements and groups.

The GAO said 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.  

The GAO recommends that the FCC and NTIA update and clarify various documents and processes to better coordinate on spectrum management.

Congress asked the GAO to conduct the study because spectrum is a scarce resource that supports vital services, such as mobile communications and Earth-observing satellites. In the U.S., the FCC and NTIA regulate and manage nonfederal and federal spectrum use, respectively, while the International Telecommunication Union (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. For domestic matters, the agencies coordinate through an NTIA-led committee that provides input to the FCC’s spectrum proceedings.

The mechanisms in place reflect some key collaboration practices but do not fully reflect others, the GAO said. For example, while the documents that guide coordination between the 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, the GAO said, neither document has been updated in almost 20 years, though agency officials said conditions regarding spectrum management activities have changed in that time.

The GAO made 11 recommendations, including that the FCC and NTIA collaborate to update or clarify various documents and processes to improve collaboration on spectrum management. The agencies agreed in a general sense to implement the recommendations.

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