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Communications Infrastructure

Policy and Politics

Next Steps on a National Spectrum Strategy

April 4, 2023 | On March 15, 2023, NTIA released its long-awaited Request for Comment to inform the development of a National Spectrum Strategy. NTIA’s stated spectrum mission is to identify 1,500 megahertz for study and potential repurposing over the next decade — a bold and necessary goal.

To address the exploding demands for spectrum to support everything from fixed and mobile wireless broadband services to advanced transportation, manufacturing and agricultural applications to national defense and security, NTIA has proposed a three-pronged approach to spectrum strategy on which it seeks comment.

The first pillar of the strategy will focus on developing a robust spectrum pipeline to ensure continued U.S. leadership in wireless technologies. As part of this pillar, expect NTIA to focus on specific non-commercial spectrum bands that can be studied for potential reallocation to exclusive or shared commercial use. The agency is interested in hearing on issues like: projected spectrum requirements, current and prospective sharing models and incentives to encourage or facilitate more robust federal and non-federal sharing arrangements.

The second pillar will focus on long-term spectrum planning. More specifically, NTIA seeks comment on the timeline, methods of coordination, and appropriate stakeholders to involve in the planning process, and asks whether existing engagement activities at the FCC and NTIA are sufficient for clear and transparent planning by the federal government, the wireless industry and other interested stakeholders. The long shadow of the FAA/5G crisis will no doubt inform thinking on these issues.

Finally, the third pillar will focus on spectrum management, as NTIA seeks comment on how to “expand the overall capacity or usability” of spectrum through existing and developing technologies, models for spectrum sharing and other innovative ways to use spectrum more efficiently.

NTIA hopes to deliver a final version of the Strategy document by the end of the year. But it’s worth keeping in mind that nothing in the world of spectrum moves quickly. And battles over specific spectrum bands are ultimately won or lost one band at a time, usually in the context of a FCC proceeding.

This plan will, however, establish an important stake in the ground on national spectrum goals and will define for all interested stakeholders target bands that are deemed most viable for reallocation. And NTIA has already indicated that the Strategy document will be followed with a specific implementation plan that will assign priority for studying specific bands over the course of the next few years.

But NTIA of course will be operating within the context of the broader political arena; and even the best spectrum plan cannot predict or control how politics may intervene in the future. A divergence of interests between the wireless industry and the Department of Defense has effectively stalled Congressional re-authorization of the FCC’s spectrum auction authority, at least for now. Expect DoD to also be a player here, specifically expounding on questions from NTIA about whether the government should seek to enable for DoD new spectrum access opportunities in non-federal bands, including on an “as needed” or opportunistic basis. In short, DoD will not yield its spectrum interests easily, and may indeed seek through this process to enhance its spectrum position.

In the world of spectrum, there are no easy answers or quick outcomes. I expect a broad cross-section of stakeholders will participate in this proceeding, advocating for a wide variety of spectrum priorities and approaches. It will require a substantial effort at NTIA to mold those comments into a coherent path forward.

The comment deadline for initial contributions to the record is April 17, 2023.

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