Telecommunications:

Comprehensive Review of U.S. Spectrum Management with Broad Stakeholder Involvement Is Needed

GAO-03-277: Published: Jan 31, 2003. Publicly Released: Jan 31, 2003.

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The radiofrequency spectrum--a natural resource used for wireless communications--is a critical input to various commercial and government functions. Because of expanding commercial and government demand for spectrum, there is increasing debate on how best to manage this resource to meet current and future needs. GAO was asked to examine whether future spectrum needs can be met, given the current regulatory framework; what benefits and difficulties have arisen with the application of market mechanisms to spectrum management; and what barriers exist to reforming spectrum management.

In the past, the United States relied primarily on a command and control approach to spectrum management, wherein the federal government largely dictated the use of spectrum. This approach generally met commercial and government users' needs for spectrum. However, increased use of commercial wireless services, such as mobile telephones, and expanding government agency missions have created growing demand for spectrum resources. GAO found that concerns exist as to whether the current spectrum-management approach can adequately meet future needs for spectrum. The United States and most other countries that GAO spoke with are incrementally adopting market-based mechanisms for spectrum management. By invoking the forces of supply and demand, market-based mechanisms can help promote the efficient use of spectrum, especially in an environment with increasing and unpredictable demand. A prominent example of a market-based mechanism is the requirement for commercial spectrum users to bid at auction for the right to use spectrum. However, because of mission and system requirements, there is some question as to whether these mechanisms can or should be applied to certain government functions. Also, legal and technical limitations can, in some instances, hinder the application of these mechanisms to commercial users. GAO found several barriers to reforming spectrum management in the United States. While active dialogue among key stakeholders is ongoing, differing priorities have led to little consensus on appropriate reforms. In addition, the current spectrum-management structure--with multiple agency jurisdictions and a slow decisionmaking process--has hindered consideration of whether fundamental reform is needed. In the past, commissions--such as the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission--have been used to look at major policy change when complex problems arise.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: On March 14, 2006, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on spectrum reform. GAO testified at this hearing, and the topic of a commission was discussed. However, a commission has not been established. There has been no additional Congressional action since the March 14, 2006, hearing.

    Matter: Because neither FCC nor the Department of Commerce specifically agreed to our recommendation, Congress may wish to consider taking appropriate action to address spectrum-management concerns. For example, Congress may wish to consider holding hearings on this matter or enacting legislation to establish an independent commission that would conduct a comprehensive examination of current U.S. spectrum management.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In 2003, the President established the Federal Government Spectrum Task Force, comprised of the heads of executive branch departments, agencies, and offices. The Department of Commerce released two reports, with recommendations, based on the task force's work. But, this task force did not include all spectrum-related stakeholders or address government-wide spectrum issues. The Department of Commerce has not undertaken steps to establish a commission.

    Recommendation: In order to develop solutions to key spectrum-management issues, the Chairman of FCC and the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, in consultation with officials from the Department of State, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and pertinent congressional committees should work together to develop and implement a plan for the establishment of a commission that would conduct a comprehensive examination of current U.S. spectrum management. This commission would examine, among other things, whether structural reform of our current system is needed. The commission should be independent and should involve all relevant stakeholders--including commercial interests, government agencies, regulators, and others--to ensure that the diversity of views on key spectrum-management issues are represented. The review should be time-limited and, if change is needed, have as its primary objective the stablishment of a framework to implement that change. Although the commission could be established by statute, executive order, or other means, a statutory basis for the commission may provide the most appropriate framework for achieving a wide-ranging review of issues that may ultimately need legislative solutions.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In 2002, FCC established the Spectrum Policy Task Force, comprised of FCC staff. This task forced released a report with recommendations, but did not include all spectrum-related stakeholders or address government-wide spectrum issues. On June 1, 2007, FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau will host a Summit on Spectrum Policy and Management. Depending on the structure and composition of the summit, this might address part of our recommendation for a broad-based commission to examine spectrum management.

    Recommendation: In order to develop solutions to key spectrum-management issues, the Chairman of FCC and the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, in consultation with officials from the Department of State, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and pertinent congressional committees should work together to develop and implement a plan for the establishment of a commission that would conduct a comprehensive examination of current U.S. spectrum management. This commission would examine, among other things, whether structural reform of our current system is needed. The commission should be independent and should involve all relevant stakeholders--including commercial interests, government agencies, regulators, and others--to ensure that the diversity of views on key spectrum-management issues are represented. The review should be time-limited and, if change is needed, have as its primary objective the stablishment of a framework to implement that change. Although the commission could be established by statute, executive order, or other means, a statutory basis for the commission may provide the most appropriate framework for achieving a wide-ranging review of issues that may ultimately need legislative solutions.

    Agency Affected: Congress

 

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