NTIA's spectrum management approach flawed, GAO says

Strategic plan left federal agencies to do their own assessments with possibly unreliable data

The Commerce Department should do a better job of planning for federal and national radio spectrum needs and of overseeing whether spectrum is being used efficiently, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

Availability of radio spectrum is critical for many national capabilities, including national defense, homeland security, emergency management and scientific research, as well as for commercial use. In March 2010, the Federal Communications Commission in its National Broadband Plan recommended that 500 MHz of additional radio spectrum be made available for wireless services during the next 10 years.

Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is charged with managing spectrum, has been only partially effective in identifying and managing it, determining whether it is being used efficiently and planning for future spectrum needs, GAO said in a report issued May 11.

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In 2008, the NTIA released a federal plan for spectrum. “GAO found this plan has several limitations, does not identify governmentwide spectrum needs and does not contain key elements and best practices of strategic planning,” the report states.

Nor has the NTIA issued a national non-federal strategic plan for spectrum, despite being requested to do so by President George W. Bush in 2003, GAO said.

The problem appears to be that the NTIA relies too much on what federal agencies say about their own spectrum needs and doesn't take a holistic view, GAO said.

“NTIA depends on agency self-evaluation of spectrum needs and focuses on interference mitigation, with limited emphasis on holistic spectrum management," GAO concluded. "Lacking a strategic vision, NTIA cannot ensure that spectrum is being used efficiently by federal agencies."

In addition, NTIA’s data management system is old and lacks internal controls, raising questions about the reliability of agency-reported data. Development of a new system has begun, but completion is several years away, the report states.

Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues at the GAO and author of the report, said NTIA should:

  • Develop an updated plan that includes key elements of a strategic plan as well as information on how spectrum is being used across the federal government, opportunities to increase efficient use of federally allocated spectrum and infrastructure, and an assessment of future spectrum needs. Commerce officials partially agreed but said they would have to weigh this against other priorities.
  • Examine current approaches and consider best practices for collecting and validating data from federal agencies on spectrum use. Commerce officials agreed.
  • Take interim steps to establish internal controls for management oversight of the accuracy and completeness of currently reported agency data to improve accuracy. Commerce officials said they would examine the feasibility of additional steps while data currently is being migrated to the Frequency Spectrum Management System.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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