Senate Panel Considers Future of Spectrum

The Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband held a hearing entitled Future of Spectrum to examine the management of spectrum. The Federal Communications Commission's spectrum auction authority is set to expire at the end of September. Congress has a unique opportunity to set future spectrum priorities and coordination goals to encourage efficient spectrum use. The hearing aimed to examine important policy considerations to ensure spectrum is utilized for the greatest benefit to the public. The core debate of the hearing was not about if the FCC's auction authority should be extended, but for how long. Republicans on the subcommittee appeared to be agreed that the FCC should get a short-term, 18-month extension. Subcommittee Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) indicated he will push for a longer-term solution in the coming weeks. In July, the House of Representatives passed the Spectrum Innovation Act of 2022 (H.R. 7624) which would extend the FCC's auction authority to March 31, 2024.

The subcommittee heard testimony and asked questions of Public Knowledge CEO Chris Lewis, CTIA CEO Meredith Baker, Andrew Von Ah of the Government Accountability Office, and Dr. Coleman Bazelon of the Brattle Group. 

In prepared testimony, Chris Lewis emphasized four points for strengthening national spectrum policy:

  1. Grounding our spectrum policy in the public interest objectives that Congress outlined for the FCC, including ensuring competition, innovation, opportunities for women and minority-owned businesses, and efficient use;
  2. Allowing innovators to thrive by adopting a balanced spectrum approach that makes spectrum available for more than just incumbent providers—including unlicensed, licensed, sharing, and other diverse access models;
  3. Extending the FCC’s auction authority for a meaningful timeframe, well beyond 18 months. Successful spectrum policy needs long-term planning—not a temporary approach that prevents spectrum leadership from making spectrum decisions that serve the public interest; and
  4. Investing auction revenues, which are ultimately repaid through consumer fees to mobile providers, in the country’s public interest objectives to promote the health of the sector and help connect all Americans to critical telecommunications services.

Mrs Baker, the chief lobbyist for wireless carriers, previously served as both the head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and a Federal Communications Commissioner. The top three priorities in her prepared remarks were: the need to re-up the FCC’s auction authority to maintain and extend U.S. spectrum leadership; replenishing the spectrum pipeline, which runs dry at the close of the 2.5 GHz auction currently underway; and empowering the FCC and NTIA to enhance interagency coordination and make interagency spectrum decisions in the best interests of our nation.

Mr. Von Ah, the director of physical infrastructure at GAO, has written a number of reports on federal spectrum management. His research has found that effective spectrum management is critical given the importance of spectrum’s role in ensuring the nation’s security and communications. NTIA has recently facilitated a complex, multi-stakeholder spectrum reallocation to free up spectrum critical for mobile services. However, by following program management leading practices related to planning, particularly for creating a plan, developing an integrated master schedule, and anticipating risks, NTIA could better ensure that reallocations are executed in a timely fashion and that potential challenges and risks are addressed before they arise. Furthermore, while mechanisms exist that facilitate collaboration between FCC and NTIA—the U.S. spectrum managers—and federal users, gaps also exist. We have found that these gaps may have contributed to challenges experienced during some recent efforts to allocate additional spectrum for mobile use and that, in the future, these gaps could contribute to challenges in managing spectrum for other uses. In our reports, we made several recommendations to FCC and NTIA related to the reallocation process and collaboration. Among others, GAO recommended that:

  1. NTIA align its spectrum reallocation-planning efforts with leading practices for program management by developing a plan, analyzing risks, and creating and updating a schedule for NTIA's ongoing and future reallocation efforts;
  2. FCC and NTIA 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 each other and—as appropriate—State);
  3. FCC and NTIA 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 each other and—as appropriate—State);
  4. FCC and NTIA update the FCC-NTIA memorandum of understanding 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 each other);
  5. FCC and NTIA request that State initiate a review of the General Guidance Document (a document that guides U.S. preparation for WRCs)—in consultation with each other and other relevant participants—and update and develop a means to continually monitor and update this document; and
  6. FCC and NTIA 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 each other, State, and other federal participants of the U.S. technical preparatory process).

Mr. Bazelon testified that the easiest spectrum reallocations from government to private uses have already been made. But demand for spectrum continues to grow. With the cost of clearing additional bands to reallocate and auction growing (as the easier ones have already happened), the net budgetary incentive to legislate these reallocations is expected to become smaller over time.  Making existing bands available for new uses without having to clear all existing uses first – that is finding ways to share bands – may avoid the largest of the clearing costs.  If new approaches to sharing can preserve a significant portion of the value to new users, then the net benefit of such approaches could remain relatively high.  Some of these approaches may lead to auctions, with a budgetary incentive preserved, while others may not.  But so long as new, creative solutions continue to facilitate the more efficient use of spectrum, we will all benefit.

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