TR Daily GAO: FCC, NTIA Should Bolster Spectrum-Management Processes
Monday, July 19, 2021

GAO: FCC, NTIA Should Bolster Spectrum-Management Processes

The FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration "should establish clearly defined and agreed-upon processes for making decisions on spectrum-management activities that involve other agencies, particularly when consensus cannot be reached," the Government Accountability Office said in a report released today that explored disagreement among federal agencies over technical limits for the 24 gigahertz band to protect passive-sensing satellite operations.

The GAO report also called on the FCC and NTIA to (1) "clarify and further identify shared goals or outcomes for spectrum-management activities that involve collaboration and ways to monitor and track progress"; (2) "update the FCC-NTIA [spectrum] MOU 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"; (3) ask the State Department to "initiate a review of the General Guidance Document—in consultation with FCC, NTIA, and other relevant participants—and update and develop a means to continually monitor and update this document"; and (4) "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 federal stakeholders.

GAO also said that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "should clarify and document NOAA’s internal processes for identifying and raising concerns about potential interference to NOAA satellite instruments." NTIA, NOAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had opposed the out-of-band emissions limits adopted by the FCC and approved ahead of the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19), saying they were too lax.

GAO said that the lack of a mechanism to escalate issues and address matters when a consensus among agencies can’t be reached resulted in problems concerning technical rules for the 24 GHz band.

"Our review of WRC-19 coordination activities indicates that the lack of clarity on these issues may have contributed to inconsistent understandings of how decisions are made and undermined trust," the report said. "For example, during WRC-19 preparations, the agencies could not agree on technical matters or a policy position for the 24 GHz band. Shortly before the U.S. was to participate in a key international meeting to establish the positions to be considered during the conference, FCC communicated with the Executive Office of the President, requesting support for moving forward with FCC’s position in the ongoing WRC19 proceeding. Some non-FCC agency officials told us that they viewed this as outside the norm for the process.

"When we asked FCC, NTIA, NOAA, and NASA officials about the decision-making process and how decisions were made, responses varied," the report added. "Some officials were unsure how the decision was ultimately made, which agencies or other entities not typically part of the process were involved, or which entity actually made the final decision about what U.S. position to present. Additionally, one meteorological stakeholder that we spoke to said that they believed that FCC was trying to dictate the study results that it and some industry representatives wanted without sufficient scientific support, thereby undermining stakeholders’ trust in the process for making these decisions.

"Both FCC and NTIA officials told us that there are no specifically defined, agreed-upon decision-making processes for when consensus cannot be reached because their coordination on routine items is largely successful, even if there are instances when more complex issues (such as spectrum allocation changes) are more controversial," GAO said. "We have previously identified that incorporating leading collaboration practices into collaborative mechanisms is especially useful for complex issues. Moreover, FCC officials stated that additional clarity might not be needed because, ultimately, FCC and NTIA have separate jurisdictions, though they collaborate to the extent possible, and because, for the U.S.’s WRC preparations, State has final authority. Yet the divergent responses we received to questions about the actual processes in practice and the confusion surrounding escalating issues to a higher level suggest that additional clarity would be helpful. Additionally, State officials we spoke to stressed the importance of FCC’s and NTIA’s role in decision-making. For example, they noted that the development of any proposal to a WRC is subject to FCC’s and NTIA’s reconciliation processes before the proposal is provided to State, and that the General Guidance Document states that documents must be reviewed and approved by State ‘in consultation with FCC and NTIA.’

"The State officials also noted that FCC’s and NTIA’s leadership is important in guiding State because the ambassador, who leads the U.S. delegation at the conference, is typically named just 6 months prior to the conference, whereas U.S. preparations for the conference last years," GAO noted. "Without clearly defined and agreed-upon processes for making decisions, particularly when consensus cannot be reached, collaboration can be strained in multiple ways. For example, as occurred during WRC-19 coordination, the lack of clearly defined and agreed-upon processes could prolong reaching consensus, create mistrust amongst participants, and lead to additional public disagreement in the future as spectrum becomes increasingly scarce and compatibility among different uses becomes more important."

GAO stressed that "[t]he gaps that exist in decision-making processes, agreed-upon outcomes, updated guidance documents, and procedures that guide the design of interference studies all contributed to hampering the U.S.’s efforts to prepare for WRC-19. While, in this case, these gaps may have also contributed to hampering NOAA’s and NASA’s efforts to protect their satellite instruments from potential interference, in the future these gaps could contribute to challenges in managing spectrum for other uses. By working to address these identified gaps and weaknesses, FCC, NTIA, NOAA, and NASA will be better positioned to reach agreement on domestic spectrum matters and present a unified U.S. position on international matters."

A May 19 response to the report signed by FCC International Bureau Chief Thomas Sullivan, acting Wireless Telecommunications Bureau Chief Joel Taubenblatt, and acting Office of Engineering and Technology Chief Ron Repasi defended the FCC’s actions concerning the 24 GHz band but indicated the agency is willing to implement GAO’s recommendations.

"In this proceeding, the FCC was transparent in providing pre-decisional items to NTIA for interagency coordination, and agencies were made aware of the direction that the Commission was taking and supported the technical parameters, including the out-of-band emissions limits at the time of NTIA coordination," the FCC officials said.

In a June 3 response, Wynn Coggins, Commerce’s acting chief financial officer, said the department generally concurred with the recommendations while stressing that bands "raise unique challenges that cannot be fully predicted or made to fit into a fully standardized process."

NTIA said in response to the specific recommendations that it "recognizes there may be situations where agencies may not support the NTIA decision and, therefore, it may be escalated within the executive branch. It would be beneficial to communicate that escalation process to Federal agencies in a clear, consistent manner to improve transparency."

And while it noted that there is room to improve collaboration, NTIA observed that it cannot dictate any actions by the FCC, an independent agency.

NTIA also said that it had already asked the State Department to update its General Guidance Document and said that it "plans to establish standardized procedures for the Federal agencies using statistical analysis techniques to guide the design of spectrum sharing studies for submission as U.S. contributions to the World Radio Conference technical meetings."

In its response, NOAA said, "The FCC proceeding is not an example of where improved procedures would have changed the outcome. Rather, NOAA presented valid input to the process once all requisite information was available to conduct the necessary engineering analyses." Such information was not available in 2014, when GAO said NOAA could have provided input, it said.

The report released today was requested by Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D., Texas) and Frank Lucas (R., Okla.), the respective chairman and ranking member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. The lawmakers have complained about the FCC’s OOBE limits.

"I thank the GAO for its hard work in preparing this report. It makes clear that a number of federal agencies have a lot of work to do," said Chairwoman Johnson. "We need a coordinated, whole-of-government approach to spectrum management which enables U.S. telecommunications leadership without threatening earth and space science observations. This approach must assure the integrity and availability of spectrum for the next generation of weather forecasting and radioastronomy, as well. As we move forward, we must actively seek out and consider the needs of all spectrum stakeholders, big and small. I look forward to working with Ranking Member Lucas and my colleagues in other Committees on strategies that will help protect the spectrum requirements of science users."

"It’s critical that we have a workable process in place to manage disputes about how we allocate spectrum frequencies, but this GAO report makes it clear that there are significant gaps in how federal agencies work together to resolve these conflicts," said Rep. Lucas. "The demands on our spectrum use are only going to grow as 5G deployment expands and the Internet of Things grows. All stakeholders, from federal agencies to private companies, need a spectrum allocation process that is fair, transparent, and provides certainty for decision making, particularly as we negotiate internationally over spectrum issues. This report provides a good framework for the actions we must take to ensure we’re taking a deliberative and scientific approach to balancing all of our spectrum needs."

The report will come up tomorrow at a committee hearing on spectrum for earth and space sciences observations. The hearing is scheduled to feature a GAO witness. —Paul Kirby, [email protected]

MainStory: FCC NTIA FederalNews Congress SpectrumAllocation

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