4 ways to improve federal spectrum accountability

The market-oriented spectrum policy reforms adopted by Congress and operationalized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over the past two decades have generated enormous benefits for consumers. They are one of the main reasons the US now has some of the world’s most advanced mobile wireless services. Market-based spectrum allocation has allowed spectrum to flow away from inefficient uses to more highly valued ones and made possible the explosive growth of mobile broadband. It has allowed wireline industry firms to reinvent themselves as integrated wireless players, enabled an ecosystem of billions of devices and applications, and fostered millions of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in economic activity. This is even more impressive when considering that these advances have been achieved on about one third of the useable radio spectrum.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks at a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill. Via REUTERS

Congress has charged the FCC to make more spectrum commercially available and to promote next generation wireless networks and services, notably with Sen. John Thune’s (R-SD) leadership on the bipartisan Mobile Now Act and STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act. By law, the FCC must conduct an open and transparent process of notice and rulemaking of how to proceed with designating the use of spectrum. It collects and evaluates information from various parties and performs economic and scientific assessments.

In general, the FCC has had cooperative relationships with other federal agencies with spectrum rights and responsibilities. In the past year two years, however, there have been at least eight instances of federal agencies challenging the FCC’s lawful process and spectrum decisions. While the contest for scarce resources is not unusual, the tone and level of conflict over recent spectrum decisions is. Conflicts have arisen over licensed and unlicensed technologies, methodologies to calculate interference, business models, and the many unfortunate attempts by one Senate Republican who advocates against free enterprise and delays much-needed allocation of critical mid-band spectrum which otherwise might have been deployed in rural areas in time for the pandemic.

While most agencies discharge their use of spectrum admirably, there is room for improvement. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) itself observes from 53 years of spectrum efficiency studies that the federal government can be a better steward. Here are four preliminary ideas on how to bring greater accountability to federal agencies’ use of spectrum and greater respect for the FCC’s lawful process and decisions.

  1. Transparency of spectrum use. Senator Mike Lee’s (R-UT) Government Spectrum Valuation Act would task NTIA, the Office of Management and Budget, and the FCC to estimate the value of relative spectrum for licensed or unlicensed use and report what is assigned and allocated to each agency. As there is some resistance to this no-brainer idea, market actors could force the discussion. The FCC has approved seven Spectrum Access System Administrators for the 3.5 gigahertz (GHz) band. One or more of these administrators could create a public dashboard of relative frequencies to show how little federal spectrum is used. This promises to show the opportunity cost of leaving spectrum fallow when so many actors are willing to use it wisely and pay for the right to do so. Allnet Insight notes that some 350 firms have signed up to participate in the forthcoming 3.5 GHz auction in which the FCC offers three payment tiers to access 70 MHz of this valuable but little-used federal spectrum. Given the plethora of firms willing to pay significant amounts for spectrum access, the FCC should consider implementing a similar tiered framework for the 6 GHz band, which otherwise is a giveaway to America’s richest online platform companies during a time of national financial crisis.  
  2. Fees. Policy experts could explore the adoption of a fee scheme for spectrum. Just as agencies must procure resources on the market (labor, real estate, electricity), they should also pay for spectrum. The UK’s Ofcom implemented this in 2007 to nudge agencies to give back their lightly used spectrum. While the agencies ended up requesting the funds to purchase rights, the regime brings greater attention and accountability to resource management and forces the agencies to acknowledge the value of spectrum.
  3. Tie appropriations to spectrum efficiency goals. Congress and related supervisors could include spectrum efficiency in overall agency oversight and grade the agencies accordingly. Spectrum stewardship could be included as part of the review criteria for appropriations and authorization.
  4. Examination of interference studies. The recent spectrum conflicts offer a valuable policy research opportunity to test the purported claims of interference and evaluate the appropriate methodologies of measurement. Many agencies have portended Y2K-like disaster scenarios of the FCC’s orders. As one to two years have elapsed since some of these proceedings, it is valuable to see whether the predictions proved to be true, were mitigated as the FCC described, or never came to pass.