Panel Dems say spectrum process is 'broken'

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Members of a House communications subcommittee are concerned that the process used by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Communications Commission to free up spectrum occupied by federal agencies for commercial use is broken.

In a House Energy and Commerce Committee Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing that covered considerable national spectrum policy ground, Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Michael Doyle (D-Pa.) voiced concerns over a dispute among a number of agencies about converting federally held spectrum for commercial use in the recently concluded FCC auction of 24 GHz spectrum designed to spur development of next-generation wireless services.

"In the past," the process of repurposing federally held spectrum to commercial use "has worked well," Doyle said. "I'm very concerned there's been a breakdown between the FCC, the NTIA and other federal stakeholders," he said.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) chairman of the full committee agreed with Doyle. "Today, the Trump FCC goes one way, the Commerce Department and NTIA go another," he said in his remarks at the hearing.

"Then you have other departments throughout the federal government, like the Departments of Transportation, Education and Defense voicing their own opinions about how spectrum should be used," he said, which impacts a "mind-numbing list" of spectrum bands. "In my opinion, the process has completely broken down." 

Both noted they were particularly concerned about changes at NTIA, which is charged with shepherding federally held spectrum. NTIA Director David Redl resigned unexpectedly in May after reported administration in-fighting over how federal spectrum is allocated.

NTIA advises the president on telecom and information policy and governs federal agencies' use of spectrum, while the FCC is in charge of managing and allocating spectrum for commercial markets.

Redl had been on the job at the agency since November of 2017. His abrupt resignation was not explained, but a June letter from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross provided some insight into what he said was inter-governmental turbulence over spectrum.

Johnson blamed a senior-level NTIA staff member for intentionally blocking the use of 24 GHz for commercial use to "defend his turf."

In late June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA complained the FCC's plan for 24 GHz spectrum for commercial 5G could severely interfere with weather satellite transmissions. Johnson contended in his letter that the agencies' complaints were raised at the "last minute" as an important international spectrum meeting, the 2019 World Radiocommunications Conference, looms in November.

"It's concerning when cabinet officials are publicly fighting with the FCC over spectrum policy," said Doyle said.

NTIA Senior Policy Advisor Derek Khlopin and FCC Chief of Office of Engineering and Technology Julius Knapp testified at the July 16 subcommittee hearing.

 Knapp and Khlopin stressed repeatedly in their testimony that discussions over commercial use of 24 GHz spectrum and satellite interference had to do with adequately protecting transmissions, not whether the spectrum should be used for commercial purposes.

The FCC, NTIA, NOAA and NASA, said Knapp, are working on protections that would insulate the federal incumbents' satellite transmissions from commercial traffic in the bands.

Finding a balance of protecting federal spectrum incumbents, while allowing commercial use, said Knapp, is difficult. Restrictions that limit commercial traffic too much would negate the use of the band, not enough impacts the incumbent, he said.

Ultimately, however, both Knapp and Khlopin believe that balance can be struck.

"Are you confident that commercial wireless operations within the 24 GHz ban can co-exist peacefully with weather sensing capabilities now and into the future?" asked Rep. Bill Johnson (D-Ohio).

"Yes," said Knapp.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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