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CHAPTER III - Systematic Changes to Institutions of Spectrum Management

Systemic Changes to Institutions of Spectrum Management Participants discussed ideas for systemic changes in spectrum management institutions, as well as ideas for changes with the current institutional framework. Steve Unger from Britain’s Ofcom summarized the required elements for systemic change as follows:

  • Sharpen economic incentives
  • Involve institution(s) with budgetary authority
  • Incorporate not only spectrum expertise, but expertise in the applications for which the spectrum is used—whether defense, aircraft or commercial mobile—into the system
  • “Top down sponsorship”—unless direction comes from the top of the organization, it is unlikely to change.

Dennis Roberson of Roberson and Associates commented that all organizations are pathological, and sometimes change is required to get away from the old pathologies, even if new pathologies are revealed over the course of time. Roberson added that the fact of change may matter more than the specific nature of the change. The group identified some changes and recognized the concerns and challenges of managing spectrum internationally:

GSA for Spectrum. In discussion among the full group, a recommendation for a GSA for Spectrumi evolved to include three elements:

  1. GSA for spectrum—an agency that is not NTIA would lease spectrum to federal government agencies;
  2. Spectrum mining—a commitment to reallocate spectrum from government to commercial use on a regular schedule; and
  3. A BRAC-equivalent for DoD spectrum.

Blair Levin, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, proposed that much of spectrum expertise should be taken out of agencies and concentrated in the new agency. He acknowledged that it would be necessary for some spectrum expertise to remain with the agencies that are leasing the spectrum, but said that amounts should be asymmetric, just as GSA has much more real estate expertise than the individual agencies on whose behalf the buildings are leased.

Several participants thought that a GSA-like agency would be necessary but not sufficient, so that the spectrum mining piece becomes a key part of the proposal. For example, there could be a revolving fund, to fund studies in the way that the Spectrum Relocation Fund does. This would help government agencies figure out how to replace the functions provided by certain spectrum uses today. In addition to funding via auction revenues, there could also be a fee on unlicensed use.

The group generally agreed that spectrum is not a commodity, but that spectrum need not be a commodity to improve economic incentives—today, federal agencies are not economic actors.

Donald Stockdale, the Bureau Chief at the FCC’s Wireless Telecom Bureau, questioned whether a GSA for spectrum would be more effective than the status quo. Stockdale posited that the approach underestimates three things: the need for White House involvement, the need for agencies using the spectrum to have some expertise, and significant transition costs. Steve Unger argued that an agency that is just a spectrum agency will be too technical, and that the agency would need to consider competition and consumer issues, as well.

Participants agreed on the advantages of having a regular commitment to making additional government spectrum available for commercial use. This could be implemented via reallocation or sharing, and sharing could either be interim or permanent. For example, it may be desirable to clear spectrum first, and then have a decision on whether it should be exclusive or shared. This approach is dependent on licensees knowing what their rights are. Participants also noted that there is not yet an existence proof of sharing, since 3.5 GHz is not yet fully implemented. In addition, a major obstacle is the budgeting process, which can make it impossible for agencies to replace existing assets or even plan for replacement, in a manner that would free up spectrum.

Zero-based spectrum budget. Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge Harold Feld noted that the statute already permits the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with OMB, to cancel a spectrum allocation. Feld proposed that NTIA, Department of Commerce, and OMB “zero-base” the spectrum budget—requiring each agency to reapply for its spectrum authorizations and justify the use. In addition, each year agencies should be required to submit a spectrum budget and apply for authorizations through the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC). This might be an approach that would yield spectrum that could be reallocated for commercial use. In addition, Feld suggested that all agencies be required to use commercial off-the-shelf equipment and not have individual spectrum assignments.

Introduction of rational carrots and sticks for federal use. The United Kingdom tried using spectrum fees as one “carrot and stick” approach. Donald Stockdale noted that there are real problems with federal government and commercial incumbency if these entities do not look at the opportunity cost of spectrum use. Stockdale noted the U.K. experience with spectrum fees and suggested the United States should consider this approach. Steve Unger suggested that spectrum fees are one way of sharpening economic incentives. The United Kingdom has had spectrum handed back by government agencies—perhaps not enough, but at least the “easy stuff” happens. Others suggested that spectrum fees are unlikely to work in the United States because agencies fear that they will not be able to achieve their missions without spectrum. Therefore, it would be essential to put together a persuasive argument for Congress to show that upfront investment in modernizing systems that use spectrum in a coordinated way would generate a significant return on that investment.

Modifications to NTIA and FCC structures. Michael Calabrese, Director of the Wireless Future Project at the New America Foundation, said that NTIA is too easily big-footed by generals, and is dependent on fees paid by other agencies. Calabrese asked whether it is practical to strengthen NTIA so that it can make decisions, while having agencies know that if they absolutely need spectrum, they can get it. Could NTIA become the GSA for spectrum? Ruth Milkman from Quadra Partners suggested that the FCC be reorganized so that spectrum decisions can be made with a cross-agency view, rather than by bureaus organized by industry segment or historical technology. Others agreed that one of the problems is too many siloed power centers, e.g., bureaus, which leads to fragmentation of policymaking.

Extreme sharing. Dennis Roberson proposed that there be a much greater emphasis on sharing, given the increasing means by which sharing can be accomplished. This should include, for example, government use of spectrum in geographies where carriers do not use specific spectrum, with appropriate compensation. Roberson said that all satellite communications spectrum should have a terrestrial component. He also suggested that most government spectrum be subject to sharing. The key is to figure out the most effective means of accomplishing the sharing in each scenario.

International concerns. International and standards processes are not controlled by federal spectrum institutions though influences run both directions. The international structure is complex and affects domestic policies, including countries with which the United States shares a border (Canada and Mexico), as well as the ITU. Increasingly the argument is being brought to the FCC that the international allocation should drive the domestic allocation. Both the ITU process and the standards bodies are dominated by incumbents.


i In 2014, Tom Lenard initially proposed the idea for a GSA-equivalent.

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