Radio spectrum is managed as a scarce natural resource in the United States. It is scarce because at any given time and place one use of a portion of the spectrum precludes any other use of that portion. In the broadcasting service alone, the broadcaster must know where the station’s signal can be received in order to meet the needs of advertisers.
Interference is unacceptable because it unnaturally limits the broadcaster’s market. Similarly, a taxi company or a police department must be able to reliably determine their coverage areas and know that they will be able to operate without interference in that area. Consequently, for the public good, the use of the radio spectrum is regulated, access is controlled, and rules for its implementation are enforced because of the possibility for interference between uncoordinated uses.
Spectrum planning in the United States is the shared responsibility of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The NTIAis an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce and is responsible for ensuring the spectrum requirements of federal government users.
The FCC is an independent regulatory agency headed by five members who are appointed for 5-year terms by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate. It is responsible for ensuring the spectrum needs of commercial operators and that the public interest is served by a competitive environment. Both the NTIAand the FCC work with other executive branch agencies to allocate portions of the spectrum for specific radio services.
Any spectrum shared by federal and nonfederal users is jointly managed by the NTIAand the FCC. Because 93.1 percent of the spectrum below 30 GHz is shared, with only 5.5 and 1.4 percent allocated, respectively, to the private sector and the government on exclusive bases, effective coordination between the NTIAand the FCC is essential.
The NTIA and the FCC establish their individual spectrum requirements and then coordinate these requirements with one another through the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC). If difficulties arise in the coordination process, the IRAC typically facilitates the negotiation efforts. The current approach to wireless spectrum allocation is viewed by experts as seriously fractured and in need of revision, given the rapid evolution of technology.
While progress has been made in the FCC’s methods of assigning spectrum, primarily through auctions, allocation policy has not kept pace with the increasing demand, with the result that the allocation system is not moving spectrum to its best uses in a timely manner. To assist it in identifying and evaluating changes in spectrum policy that will increase the public benefits derived from the use of the radio spectrum, the FCC has established a Spectrum Policy Task Force.
The responsibilities of the task force are to provide specific recommendations to the FCC for ways in which to evolve the current “command and control” approach to spectrum policy into a more integrated, market-oriented approach that provides greater regulatory certainty while minimizing regulatory intervention.
The task force also assists the FCC in addressing ubiquitous spectrum issues, including interference protection, spectral efficiency, effective public safety communications, and implications of international spectrum policies. Congress also can influence spectrum allocations through legislation. Once spectrum is allocated, the frequencies become available for managed federal use under the authority of NTIAand for state and local government and commercial use under the authority of the FCC.
Federal courts also have something to say about spectrum matters—specifically about FCC enforcement. For example, NextWave Telecom, a small wireless carrier embroiled in bankruptcy, won back the rights to airwave licenses worth billions of dollars when a U.S. Appeals Court ruled in mid- 2001 that the FCC had stripped the company’s spectrum improperly when it defaulted on its payments.
The 90 licenses at issue, which NextWave picked up in a 1996 spectrum auction for more than $4.7 billion, provide as much as 30 MHz in major cities. Ultimately, NextWave sold the licenses to AT&T, Cingular, Verizon, and VoiceStream for $16 billion, with NextWave getting $5 billion and the U.S. Treasury getting $11 billion. International spectrum allocations typically influence allocation decisions within the United States; however, the interests of the federal government and commercial spectrum users usually take precedence.
Therefore, domestic and international spectrum allocations do not always coincide, as in the case of third-generation (3G) networks, which use different frequency bands—one set for the United States and a different set for the rest of the world.
Radio spectrum is managed as a scarce natural resource. It is scarce because at any given time and place one use of a portion of the spectrum precludes any other use of that portion. In the broadcasting service alone, the broadcaster must know where the station’s signal can be received in order to meet the needs of advertisers. Interference is unacceptable because it unnaturally limits the broadcaster’s market.
Similarly, a taxi company or a police department must be able to reliably determine its coverage area and know that it will be able to operate without interference in that area. Consequently, for the public good, the use of the radio spectrum is regulated, access is controlled, and rules for its use are enforced because of the possibility for interference between uncoordinated uses.