GAO Says Federal Agencies Should Strengthen Collaboration on Spectrum Management
Tuesday, July 20, 2021 | Comments

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.

For domestic matters, the agencies coordinate through an NTIA-led committee that provides input to the FCC’s spectrum proceedings. For U.S. participation in the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), the 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.

These mechanisms 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. GAO said its 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.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA conduct and 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, GAO said, 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.

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 to generally implement the recommendations.

Find the full GAO report here.

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