Spectrum Management:

Better Knowledge Needed to Take Advantage of Technologies That May Improve Spectrum Efficiency

GAO-04-666: Published: May 28, 2004. Publicly Released: May 28, 2004.

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Recent advances in technologies that rely on the use of the radiofrequency spectrum have turned science fiction of the past into reality. Cellular telephones, wireless computer networks, global positioning system receivers, and other spectrum-dependent technologies are quickly becoming as common to everyday life as radios and televisions. Further, these technologies have become critical to a variety of government missions, including homeland security and strategic warfare. However, with the increased demand, the radio-frequency spectrum--a resource that once seemed unlimited--has become crowded and, in the future, may no longer be able to accommodate all users' needs. As a result, there has been a growing debate among spectrum policy leaders about how to use spectrum more efficiently. To help inform these debates, GAO was asked to look at agencies' investments in spectrum efficient technologies and how the nation's spectrum management system may affect the development and adoption of these technologies.

The nine federal agencies that GAO reviewed--which are among the largest users and investors in technologies and systems impacting spectrum use--have made some investments in technologies that provide improved spectrum efficiency. However, these investments have tended to occur when agencies needed to make greater use of available spectrum to meet a mission requirement--not by an underlying, systematic consideration of spectrum efficiency. For example, as a result of growing spectrum constraints, the Department of Defense (DOD), the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began investing in technologies that would increase the throughput of information while using smaller segments of their available spectrum. However, agencies also consider other factors--including cost and technical and operational concerns--that may dissuade them from investing in spectrum efficient technologies. For example, DOD may need to use more spectrum to meet an operational requirement to field a jam-proof and accurate radar for military aircraft. The current structure and management of spectrum use in the United States does not encourage the development and use of some spectrum efficient technologies. Because the spectrum allocation framework largely compartmentalizes spectrum by types of services (such as aeronautical radio navigation) and users (federal, nonfederal, and shared), the capability of emerging technologies designed to use spectrum in different ways is often diminished. For example, software-defined cognitive radios--radios that adapt their use of the spectrum to the real-time conditions of their operating environments--could be used to sense unused frequencies, or "white spaces," and automatically make use of those frequencies. It may also be possible to use software-defined cognitive radios to exploit "gray spaces" in the spectrum--areas where emissions exist yet could still accommodate additional users without creating a level of interference that is unacceptable to incumbent users--to increase spectrum efficiency. Currently, however, the spectrum allocation system may not provide the freedom needed for these technologies to operate across existing spectrum designations, and defining new rules requires knowledge about spectrum that spectrum leaders do not have. At the same time, there are few federal regulatory requirements and incentives to use spectrum more efficiently. While the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is responsible for managing the federal government's use of spectrum and ensuring spectrum efficiency, NTIA primarily relies on individual agencies to ensure that the systems they develop are as spectrum efficient as possible. Agencies' guidance and policies, however, do not require systematic consideration of spectrum efficiency in their acquisitions. The lack of economic consequence associated with the manner in which spectrum is used has also provided little incentive to agencies to pursue opportunities proactively to develop and use technologies that would improve spectrum efficiency governmentwide.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The NTIA Administrator and the FCC Chairman should jointly assess and determine the feasibility of redefining the spectrum allocation system to build in greater flexibility where appropriate to facilitate emerging technologies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Telecommunications and Information Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The FCC has taken steps to implemented this recommendation. FCC has opened several proceedings to evaluate ways to build more flexibility into the spectrum allocation process to facilitate emerging spectrum-efficient technologies. The NTIA and FCC are also planning to develop a National Strategic Spectrum Plan. The plan, which is yet to be developed, is intended, among other things, to outline steps to jointly assess and determine the feasibility of redefining the spectrum allocation system.

    Recommendation: The NTIA Administrator and the FCC Chairman should jointly assess and determine the feasibility of redefining the spectrum allocation system to build in greater flexibility where appropriate to facilitate emerging technologies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Telecommunications and Information Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NTIA has taken steps to implemented this recommendation. NTIA produced an action plan in 2006 to address spectrum related issues, including those intended to foster greater spectrum efficiency. The NTIA also issued a Federal Strategic Spectrum Management Plan in 2008, which is intended to provide an assessment of federal spectrum uses and needs. This plan will be used in the formulation of a broader National Strategic Spectrum Plan, to be prepared by NTIA and FCC. The federal plan specifically addresses efforts to facilitate the introduction of emerging technologies. For example, DOD is seeking to capitalize on emerging technologies which will improve spectrum utilization, such as: bandwidth-efficient modulation and coding schemes, smart directional antennas, and data throughput increases built upon multipath technologies such as multiple-input-multiple-output (MIMO) technologies. To accommodate these emerging technologies, the federal plan envisions evolving spectrum allocation processes, improving analytical tools, and introducing economic incentives that recognize the value of spectrum to encourage federal agencies to make investments in more spectrum-efficient technologies.

    Recommendation: The NTIA Administrator and the FCC Chairman should jointly develop and implement plans to gain a more thorough and on-going understanding of the current spectrum environment.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FCC has taken steps to implemented this recommendation. The 2008 NTIA Federal Strategic Spectrum Plan seeks to incrementally improve the federal spectrum management processes through: automation and advanced analytical tools; standardized generation of spectrum requirements; and methods to forecast spectrum trends. These improvements will lead to a better understanding of existing and intended spectrum use and a comprehensive operational picture of the spectrum environment. This increased understanding will enable development of policies and standards which support the introduction and use of adaptive and dynamic means of utilizing spectrum. FCC will help NTIA in the formulation of a National Strategic Spectrum Plan. The national plan should outline steps required to gain a more thorough and on-going understanding of the current spectrum environment.

    Recommendation: The NTIA Administrator and the FCC Chairman should jointly develop and implement plans to gain a more thorough and on-going understanding of the current spectrum environment.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Telecommunications and Information Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NTIA has taken steps to implemented this recommendation. The 2008 NTIA Federal Strategic Spectrum Plan seeks to incrementally improve the federal spectrum management processes through: automation and advanced analytical tools; standardized generation of spectrum requirements; and methods to forecast spectrum trends. These improvements will lead to a better understanding of existing and intended spectrum use and a comprehensive operational picture of the spectrum environment. This increased understanding will enable development of policies and standards which support the introduction and use of adaptive and dynamic means of utilizing spectrum. NTIA will assist the Chairman of the FCC in the formulation of a National Strategic Spectrum Plan. The national plan should outline steps required to gain a more thorough and on-going understanding of the current spectrum environment.

    Recommendation: The NTIA Administrator and the FCC Chairman should jointly strengthen efforts to develop jointly accepted models and methodologies to assess the impact of new technologies on overall spectrum use and increase opportunities to permit testing of those technologies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Telecommunications and Information Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FCC has taken steps to implemented this recommendation. In commenting on this recommendation, FCC stated that it has, and will, continue to work with NTIA to develop jointly accepted models and methodologies to assess the impact of new radio technologies and when technologies under its oversight are developed that would operate in spectrum used by federal government users. NTIA will assist the Chairman of the FCC in the formulation of a National Strategic Spectrum Plan. The plan is intended to outline steps for strengthening efforts to develop jointly accepted models and methodologies to assess the impact of new technologies on overall spectrum use and increase opportunities to permit testing of those technologies.

    Recommendation: The NTIA Administrator and the FCC Chairman should jointly strengthen efforts to develop jointly accepted models and methodologies to assess the impact of new technologies on overall spectrum use and increase opportunities to permit testing of those technologies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Telecommunications and Information Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NTIA has taken steps to implemented this recommendation. The 2008 Federal Strategic Spectrum Management Plan establishes as a mid-term goal, the development of a NTIA/FCC New Technology Testbed. The testbed will enable Federal and non-Federal users of spectrum to explore new technologies and methods to share the finite radio spectrum. Both the NTIA and the FCC have solicited comment on the proposal. Each agency will identify 10 MHz of spectrum to be used in the test. NTIA expects that this project will drive future innovation and increased sharing to benefit government and commercial users, and serve as a proving ground and catalyst for advancing technologies important to dynamic spectrum access.

    Recommendation: To better ensure federal agencies consider and invest in spectrum efficient technologies, the NTIA Administrator should establish guidance for agencies to determine and report their future spectrum requirements.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NTIA has taken steps to implemented this recommendation. The 2008 Federal Strategic Spectrum Management Plan acknowledges that while federal agencies have provided extensive information on their current and projected future spectrum use, this information is primarily qualitative in nature, and that only a few have been able to supply quantified estimates of future spectrum uses. Furthermore, while agencies are motivated to utilize effective systems in order to meet their missions, further improvements to the Federal spectrum management framework are needed to improve spectrum efficiency. Agencies have taken some actions to utilize more spectrally efficient systems, for example, by taking initial steps to consider the economic value of spectrum. However, the federal plan recognizes that more action is needed to meet growing spectrum demand and that further integration of spectrum management into agency capital planning and budget processes is needed to provide a mechanism for consideration of the value of spectrum when investing in new major spectrum-dependent systems.

    Recommendation: To better ensure federal agencies consider and invest in spectrum efficient technologies, the NTIA Administrator should strengthen NTIA's spectrum certification process to more directly address spectrum efficiency.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Telecommunications and Information Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NTIA has taken steps to implemented this recommendation. The 2008 NTIA Federal Strategic Spectrum Plan acknowledges that regulatory hurdles currently prevent Federal and non-federal spectrum users from efficiently sharing spectrum, and that flexible spectrum sharing could allow both Federal and non-Federal users to more efficiently utilize the spectrum resource through economic and non-economic incentives. NTIA is studying various incentive approaches and methodologies to promote the use of spectrum-efficient technologies to satisfy Federal and non-Federal spectrum needs. These studies will identify policy changes required to implement these incentive mechanisms, possibly including secondary markets, property rights, sharing, and fees. NTIA expects to develop recommendations relating to these policy changes, as appropriate, develop legislative proposals as required, and implement such policies within the Federal Government.

    Recommendation: To better ensure federal agencies consider and invest in spectrum efficient technologies, the NTIA Administrator should determine approaches, where appropriate, for providing incentives to agencies to use spectrum more efficiently and then pilot and measure the effectiveness of those approaches.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NTIA has taken steps to implemented this recommendation. The 2008 NTIA Federal Strategic Spectrum Plan acknowledges that regulatory hurdles currently prevent Federal and non-federal spectrum users from efficiently sharing spectrum, and that flexible spectrum sharing could allow both Federal and non-Federal users to more efficiently utilize the spectrum resource through economic and non-economic incentives. NTIA is studying various incentive approaches and methodologies to promote the use of spectrum-efficient technologies to satisfy Federal and non-Federal spectrum needs. These studies will identify policy changes required to implement these incentive mechanisms, possibly including secondary markets, property rights, sharing, and fees. NTIA expects to develop recommendations relating to these policy changes, as appropriate, develop legislative proposals as required, and implement such policies within the Federal Government.

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