The House of Representatives have passed the bill requiring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to better coordinate over the nation’s spectrum policy

Earlier this week, the US government voted to approve the Spectrum Coordination Act, a bill obligating the FCC and NTIA to update their Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) over spectrum coordination for the first time since 2003. 

It would seem, however, that this bill is something of a formality, with formal work to increase collaboration between the two governing bodies already underway. 

The FCC and NTIA held their first meeting last week as part of a joint Spectrum Coordination Initiative they launched they back in February, aiming to smooth collaboration between the two organisations over national spectrum policy. Following the meeting, the pair announced the creation of a new joint task force, set to focus on ironing out the details of a new MoU.

“Congress has been clear about NTIA’s statutory role as manager of the Federal government’s use of spectrum and the FCC as the independent agency responsible for non-federal spectrum policy. Our agencies have a long history of working together to ensure that spectrum policy decisions foster economic growth, ensure our national and homeland security, maintain U.S. global leadership, and advance other vital U.S. needs. That will only continue and grow as we build this new agreement,” said a joint statement from FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and Assistant Secretary of Commerce Alan Davidson. 

As part of the update to the companies’ MoU, the organisations pledged to improve communication, coordination, and joint research, as well as holding regular formal meetings about joint spectrum planning.

The at times dysfunctional relationship between these two organisations has been recognised for some time.

The NTIA is the manager of the government’s spectrum usage, while the FCC oversees non-federal usage, meaning there is plenty of opportunity for miscommunication and controversy. In recent years, disputes between the organisations have focussed largely on the FCC’s opening up of certain spectrum bands already in use by services like weather and global positioning systems (GPS) to telecoms operators, thereby potentially threatening interference for these existing services.

However, perhaps the largest and most public clash took place around the start of this year, when the FCC found itself embroiled in a clash between mobile operators and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over the deployment of 5G. 

The FCC had auctioned 5G C-band spectrum in February last year, raising over $80 billion in a highly competitive auction process. Verizon and AT&T quickly rushed to deploy the new spectrum, planning to activate it at the start of this year. However, the FAA raised high-profile objections to the launch of these services, arguing that they would interfere with crucial flight instrumentation.

The FCC disagreed, saying that their research showed that the C-band spectrum would not cause disruption to aviation operations; this spectrum band had already been deployed in numerous markets around the world with no recorded disturbance to the aviation industry. Nonetheless, the operators granted delays to their launch of new services using this spectrum and airlines ultimately became 5G buffer zones to minimise perceived disruption.

As this saga showed, a lack of coordination between the FCC, the NTIA, and other government organisations over spectrum policy can cause significant and costly setbacks for telecoms operators and other services that rely on this crucial connectivity. Better collaboration between the organisations offers some very tangible benefits, especially as additional spectrum bands continue to be released to telecoms operators.

The FCC is currently planning another 5G auction, this time offering spectrum in the 2.5GHz band, which will take place later this summer. 

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