Policy Studies Technology and Innovation

Rivalrous Regulators: Historical Analysis of the Dual Agency Approach to Spectrum Management


Jeffrey Westling
Former Resident Fellow, Technology & Innovation

Key Points

Two separate agencies regulate spectrum in the United States, the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NITA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), each with their own mandates and goals.

The NTIA’s primary focus is to protect federal operations from harmful interference, while the FCC focuses on efficiency via promoting the public interest; however, these two similar but ultimately disparate approaches can lead to tension between the agencies, and confusion for users and operators.

Steps like updating the memorandum of understanding between the agencies, increasing technical resources and incentivizing sharing may help mitigate these tensions, but more extensive structural reforms may be necessary.

Press Release

Two Sides of the Story: Dual Agency Approach to Spectrum Management


As we move into the 5G world, access to radio frequencies has become an ever-present challenge for operators. Services need the legal certainty that their networks can function without the fear of harmful interference degrading their operations. Unfortunately, almost every frequency band or channel has an existing legal right to operate. Therefore, federal regulators must carefully examine allocations to ensure that they best support the public interest. Recently, regulators have made significant strides to do just that. For example, regulators transformed the 3.5 GHz band into a 3-tiered access system, which allows federal operations to continue, while also allowing the inclusion of licensed and unlicensed operations when available. In the 3.7 – 4.2 GHz “C-band,” regulators worked with satellite providers to resolve difficult technical challenges and make a large portion of the band available for flexible use. Past administrations expanded use in the “spectrum frontiers,” which are high-band frequencies suitable for sending substantial amounts of data over shorter distances.

However, with an ever-present threat of harmful interference, regulators often face difficult trade-offs between the costs and benefits of assigning more users to smaller frequency bands. At the same time, speed and certainty is critical as private operators deploy networks. The longer it takes regulators to complete a proceeding, the lower the value of associated legal rights.

In the United States, two separate regulators govern radio operations: the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) for federal users and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for non-federal users. In recent years, cracks have begun to show as more federal agencies go beyond NTIA’s Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee and take their grievances outside of the cooperative structure.7 These cracks will only continue to grow and therefore revising and improving this model must be a top priority for Congress.

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