The recent clash between the aviation industry and wireless carriers over safety concerns due to interference with 5G mobile signals has highlighted what many critics say is a dysfunctional process for managing the nation's spectrum resources. Now the two federal agencies tasked with managing US spectrum say they've got a plan they hope will head off disputes before they become major problems.
The Federal Communications Commission and National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced Tuesday a new initiative to "address gaps" in how they manage spectrum allocation. As part of the effort, the agencies will update a memorandum of understanding on spectrum duties.
The effort to improve coordination comes just weeks after a major dispute between the Federal Aviation Administration and the FCC resulted in airlines canceling flights due to concerns that wireless carriers' deployment of 5G using so-called C-band of spectrum would interfere with radio altimeters in planes used for low-visibility landings. The FAA and the wireless industry have agreed to temporary fixes to the issue, but experts say the underlying issue could take years to resolve.
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The heads of the FAA and Department of Transportation have criticized NTIA under former President Donald Trump's administration for not passing along a letter to the FCC before the C-band was auctioned off in late 2020. They claim their safety concerns over potential interference with 5G signals and altimeters weren't taken seriously The FAA eventually side-stepped NTIA and took their concerns directly to President Joe Biden's administration. When the issues could not be resolved, the FAA issued warnings to airports, which led to AT&T and Verizon delaying the initial deployment of their C-band spectrum and resulted in some airlines disrupting flights.
As part of Tuesday's announcement, the heads of the FCC and the NTIA say they will increase direct communication between the agencies and hold "formal, regular meetings, beginning monthly, to conduct joint spectrum planning." They also said they would more clearly define their roles for managing spectrum, collaborate on a spectrum allocation policy, and cooperatively develop a process for analyzing spectrum interference and compatibility.
"Now more than ever we need a whole-of-government approach to spectrum policy," FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement Tuesday. "Over the past few years, we've seen the cost of not having one, and we need a non-stop effort to fix that."
NTIA is an agency within the Commerce Department that oversees the use of spectrum by federal agencies. It advises the president on spectrum matters. By contrast, the FCC is an independent regulatory agency that manages the nation's commercial spectrum. Disputes between the two agencies often arise as the interests of their constituencies, federal spectrum users and commercial users collide.
One such example is the controversy over the FCC's allocation of 5G spectrum to satellite company Ligado. NTIA, the Department of Transportation and the US Defense Department argued against the FCC's move to allow Ligado to use the spectrum, saying that the 5G service would interfere with GPS service that operated using nearby spectrum.
Spectrum policy experts, like Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, said on Twitter following the announcement that the fact that Rosenworcel and NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson have agreed to work more closely to coordinate spectrum is good news when it comes to spectrum policy. But he added that it will take more than just these two agencies to make a real difference.
"None of this will work if Congressional Committees keep encouraging turf fights by having one-sided hearings and introducing legislation to undermine FCC decisions," Feld said in a tweet. "Additionally, because agencies don't have authority over each other, will need serious White House investment (at least initially) to make this work."
These coordination efforts are likely to come up Wednesday when Davidson is scheduled to testify at his first oversight hearing as NTIA chief before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In addition to talking about spectrum issues, lawmakers are expected to question him on NTIA's role in distributing billions of dollars in subsidies to states to expand broadband connectivity nationwide as part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that was signed into law in November.