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Ending the Spectrum Wars

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Administrative tangles are inhibiting competition with China over the dominance of critical communications technology. 

Nearly four years after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a license modification for the satellite communications company Ligado, the company’s dispute with the Department of Defense (DOD) and other national security agencies has spawned a $40 billion lawsuit and feels no closer to resolution.

For telecommunications insiders, the Ligado debacle has become a symbol of our inability to manage our airwaves efficiently. However, the most aggravating part of this years-long dispute is that it may have been avoided if federal experts had properly considered the national security value of commercial wireless technologies.

From walkie-talkies and baby monitors to state-of-the-art Wi-Fi and 5G, all wireless operations use radio waves to send information over the air. Generally speaking, radio waves oscillate at varying frequencies like any other wave. In the context of telecommunications, spectrum typically refers to the different frequency ranges that are available for use. The larger the range of frequencies available, the more data an operator can send.

With commercial use of radio spectrum becoming increasingly crucial for our national security, Congress and the Biden administration must head off current and future tensions between federal and non-federal radio operators. The first step toward preventing future Ligado debacles is putting the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the driver’s seat and abandoning worst-case thinking in favor of an approach that considers the national security value of commercial spectrum. After all, the determination of what is and is not in the interest of national security doesn’t reside exclusively in the DOD.

While the radio spectrum is theoretically infinite, the frequency bands that operators can legally use to transmit information wirelessly are limited. Further complicating matters, radio operations add noise to the radio environment, making it more difficult for a receiver to pick up the desired signal and filter out the noise. Radio operations can harmfully interfere with each other when that noise reduces the functionality of the affected system. To maximize the bandwidth available for new uses while protecting incumbents from harmful interference, federal regulators allocate specific portions of the radio spectrum for specific uses.

Since 1978, NTIA has been the expert agency for telecommunications and information policy. Its staff of engineers and technical experts is designed to take a tech-first approach to managing our nation’s radio spectrum. While the FCC is the agency that technically approves allocations for radio spectrum for commercial uses, NTIA manages federal spectrum usage and often works with the FCC to prevent harmful interference by conducting technical analysis on proposed FCC actions. These evaluations are incredibly complex in any circumstance but are even more so when one of the incumbents is the federal government itself.

While commercial operations use significant portions of the wireless spectrum, the federal government remains one of the largest holders of spectrum rights. The DOD, in particular, controls vast swaths of commercially valuable spectrum and is understandably hesitant to give up control of this valuable resource. All too often, pushback from federal entities—most significantly, the DOD through the Interdepartmental Radio Advisory Committee—prevents the agency from exerting its authority and expertise. Agencies have also begun to go outside the internal processes to bring spectrum disputes to the public or lobby Congress to intervene. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration attempted to derail the auction of 24 GHz spectrum licenses out of concern for interference, going around the NTIA process.

The challenges of having incumbents cry havoc after having been included in the process aren’t unique to the federal government. Still, they are exacerbated by outdated views of risk and undervaluing the benefits of making additional spectrum available for commercial use.

Traditionally, regulators look at the worst-case scenario when determining whether services could coexist, regardless of how likely that scenario was. Regulators today, especially at the FCC, tend to embrace a risk-based approach that takes an inventory of all potentially harmful interference, uniformly characterizes the severity of that interference, and assesses the likelihood of negative consequences of that interference. This approach provides a more complete picture of potential harmful interference and tends to result in moreefficient management of our airwaves.

Of course, the DOD and other national security agencies need to use the radio spectrum for national defense. Piloting a Predator drone, operating a missile defense system, communicating with ships at sea, and thousands of other military operations require an unimpeded radio spectrum. However, security experts tend to discount the importance and value of commercial spectrum deployment.

The commercial deployment of radio spectrum serves as a backbone for a wide array of critical communications systems. In the digital age, secure and open commercial networks support everything from emergency services to some military operations, enabling real-time data transmission that is vital for situational awareness and rapid response capabilities. Hampering commercial deployment in the United States could directly inhibit these essential operations.

Perhaps a more important factor when considering the value of commercially deploying spectrum efficiently is the geopolitical reality that we are in direct competition with China for global leadership in wireless technologies. If the United States falls behind in developing and deploying advanced wireless technologies like 5G and next-generation Wi-Fi, we risk not only economic disadvantage but also vulnerabilities in national security. Superiority in wireless technology translates into enhanced cybersecurity, as newer technologies often include improved security features that protect against espionage and cyber attacks. Moreover, countries leading in wireless technology can set global standards and influence the direction of technology development, thus potentially controlling the security protocols and accessibility features inherent in these technologies.

For example, researchers at the Harvard Belfer Center presciently warned of the risks of allowing China to dominate the development and deployment of 5G: “If it succeeds, China will have a first-mover advantage in a technology with significant commercial, intelligence, and military applications.” Nearly three years after that report was released, China is not only leading in the deployment of 5G-capable equipment but also leading in the allocation of licensed commercial spectrum, particularly mid-band spectrum that is ideal for 5G.

Federal regulators must stop taking a worst-case approach to evaluating potentially harmful interference in order to compete with China in advanced wireless technologies. Instead, the NTIA and federal agencies should take a more holistic look at potential harmful interference hazards and the risks of not acting on allowing new entrants into the radio ecosystem.

Furthermore, the stakeholders affected, including DOD and the White House, should trust the technical experts at the FCC and NTIA and allow the NTIA to speak for the executive branch on spectrum issues. While this requires buy-in from the agencies, Congress should also consider ways to strengthen NTIA’s role in the interagency process as part of the push to reauthorize auction authority for the FCC. With a complete understanding of the risks and a unified, definitive voice at the NTIA, federal regulators can maximize the efficiency of spectrum usage while protecting incumbent operations, both federal and non-federal.

In an era of global competition for dominance, in which China is rapidly deploying cutting-edge networks, the United States cannot afford to be hampered by another Ligado incident. National security agencies and experts must reframe their calculus around spectrum policy and give more value to the commercial deployment of wireless technologies. If federal incumbents are willing to put aside interagency territoriality, and experts are willing to think beyond worst-case interference analysis, the United States can begin to regain the lead in wireless technologies.