Spectrum Management:

NTIA Planning and Processes Need Strengthening to Promote the Efficient Use of Spectrum by Federal Agencies

GAO-11-352: Published: Apr 12, 2011. Publicly Released: May 12, 2011.

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Radio frequency spectrum enables vital wireless communications services used by the federal government, businesses, and consumers. Spectrum capacity is necessary for wireless broadband (high-speed Internet access) and broadband deployment will boost the nation's capabilities in many important areas. As the demand for spectrum continues to increase, there is concern about adequate access to meet future needs. This requested report examines (1) how the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is managing spectrum needs of federal agencies, (2) how federal agencies are using and managing assigned spectrum, and (3) what steps NTIA has taken to meet recent initiatives aimed at making spectrum available for broadband. GAO reviewed NTIA's spectrum management documents; surveyed the 19 federal agencies comprising the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee; and interviewed NTIA officials and industry and academic experts.

NTIA is responsible for governmentwide federal spectrum management, but its efforts in this area have been limited. In 2003, the President directed NTIA to develop plans identifying federal and national (both federal and nonfederal) spectrum needs, and in 2008, NTIA issued the federal plan. GAO found this plan has several limitations, does not identify governmentwide spectrum needs, and does not contain key elements and best practices of strategic planning. NTIA has yet to issue the national plan. Furthermore, NTIA's primary spectrum management operations do not focus on governmentwide needs. Instead NTIA depends on agency self-evaluation of spectrum needs and focuses on interference mitigation, with limited emphasis on holistic spectrum management. Lacking a strategic vision, NTIA cannot ensure that spectrum is being used efficiently by federal agencies. Additionally, NTIA's data management system is antiquated and lacks internal controls to ensure the accuracy of agency-reported data, making it unclear if decisions about federal spectrum use are based on reliable data. NTIA is developing a new data management system, but full implementation of the system is years away. Federal agencies use spectrum for many purposes such as emergency communications and national defense, and NTIA requires the agencies to periodically evaluate their current and future spectrum needs. Agencies are supposed to ensure spectrum assignments fulfill established mission needs; however, NTIA does not have specific requirements for agencies to justify their spectrum assignments or validate data used for these evaluations. Consequently, NTIA has limited assurance that the data used to make spectrum management decisions are accurate. Federal agencies rely heavily on their program offices to obtain data for the required evaluations and often face challenges, such as resource constraints and staff turnover, when coordinating with field program staff. Given that validating spectrum assignments could require significant agency resources, it would be beneficial for NTIA to consider options for a different approach to obtain and validate critical spectrum assignment information from the agencies, such as requiring agencies to conduct site surveys or attest to the accuracy of data they submit. In response to recent initiatives, NTIA has taken steps to identify spectrum that could be made available for broadband use. First, NTIA evaluated various spectrum bands and identified 115 megahertz of spectrum that could be made available for broadband within the next 5 years based on criteria it developed. Second, NTIA developed an initial plan and timetable for evaluating and repurposing additional spectrum for broadband use in 10 years. Affected federal agencies--that is, those agencies operating devices in the spectrum bands being evaluated--encountered difficulties providing NTIA with the necessary data and analyses during the most recent evaluation. For example, according to the affected agencies, they were required to analyze and submit a significant amount of detailed impact analyses that were not readily available. Agencies will likely continue to face challenges providing such analyses to NTIA in the future as NTIA begins evaluating a larger number of spectrum bands for possible broadband use in the next 10 years. NTIA should develop an updated strategic plan, examine its assignment review processes to determine if the current approach can be improved, and establish internal controls to ensure the accuracy of agency-reported data. The Department of Commerce concurred with GAO's recommendation to examine the review processes and, citing competing priorities, partially concurred with the remaining two.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the Department of Commerce has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To facilitate the effective governmentwide management of federal spectrum use, and to ensure NTIA's previous efforts to develop a federal strategic plan are not diminished, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information should develop an updated plan that includes key elements of a strategic plan, as well as information on how spectrum is being used across the federal government, opportunities to increase efficient use of federally allocated spectrum and infrastructure, an assessment of future spectrum needs, and plans to incorporate these needs in the frequency assignment, equipment certification, and review processes.

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

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NTIA is responsible for managing the federal government's use of spectrum. Federal agencies use spectrum for many purposes, such as emergency communications and national defense, and are supposed to ensure spectrum assignments fulfill established mission needs. The Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC)--an interagency committee of the federal government's primary spectrum users--is responsible for coordinating federal use of spectrum and providing NTIA policy advice on spectrum issues. In April 2011, we reported that NTIA requires federal agencies to review all their spectrum frequency assignments every 5 years and delete assignments not essential to their missions, but these reviews were often perfunctory. Moreover, NTIA had not established specific requirements for agencies to justify their needs and to validate and verify data used to evaluate their current and future spectrum needs. Consequently, NTIA had limited assurance that the data used to make spectrum management decisions were accurate. Given that verifying the information for each frequency assignment record could require significant agency resources, we determined that it would be beneficial for NTIA to consider options for a different approach to obtain critical assignment information from the agencies. We recommended that NTIA, in consultation with IRAC, examine the 5-year assignment review processes and consider best practices to determine if the current approach for collecting and validating data from federal agencies could be streamlined or improved. In May 2013, NTIA implemented process improvements to ensure that federal agencies review and validate their spectrum assignments on a more regular and timely basis. As part of the process improvements, NTIA informs agencies of their respective review dates, allowing the agencies time to prepare and submit the review of their assignments. Prior to an agency's 5-year assignment review submission due date, NTIA instructs the IRAC's Frequency Assignment Subcommittee to review the assignments to determine whether the agency's assignments should be renewed. For those agencies that have not submitted their 5-year assignment review, NTIA notifies them of their delinquent status. One year after notifying agencies of their delinquent status, the assignments not validated for renewal during the IRAC subcommittee reviews are considered to be expired and are removed from NTIA's federal spectrum management database. As a result of these process improvements, NTIA has established a structured means for reviewing spectrum assignments and removing outdated information from the federal spectrum management database. These process improvements will better enable NITA to coordinate spectrum usage among all federal agencies.

    Recommendation: To facilitate the effective governmentwide management of federal spectrum use, and to help ensure federal agencies are managing current and future spectrum assignments efficiently, in consultation with IRAC, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information should examine the 5-year assignment review processes and consider best practices to determine if the current approach for collecting and validating data from federal agencies can be streamlined or improved.

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

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NTIA is responsible for managing the federal government's use of spectrum. In April 2011, we reported that NTIA collects spectrum data from federal agencies in an antiquated data management system that lacks transparency and internal controls. We noted that because NTIA did not have an internal control mechanism in place to validate and verify the accuracy of spectrum-related data submitted by the agencies, NTIA had limited assurance that agency-reported data were accurate and complete. At the time of our review, NTIA said it was developing a new data management system, called the Federal Spectrum Management System (FSMS), to modernize and improve spectrum management processes. We recommended that NTIA take interim steps to establish internal controls for management oversight of the accuracy and completeness of currently reported agency data, and in developing FSMS, incorporate adequate internal controls for validating the accuracy of agency-reported information submitted during the assignment, certification, and frequency assignment review processes. In response to this recommendation, NTIA took interim steps to help ensure it collected accurate and complete data on federal spectrum usage. In particular, as of May 2015, NTIA was in the process of (1) testing an automated tool (called the Equipment Location and Certification Database) that will support the electronic processing of spectrum certification requests to help validate the accuracy of agency-reported data; (2) hiring additional personnel for its Spectrum Services Division tasked to ensure quality control over the agency-reported data; and (3) awarding a contract to a professional electrical engineering services company to conduct a review of the spectrum certification process, analyze trends in the processing of requests for spectrum certification, and recommend improvements to the process. These interim steps should enhance NTIA's assurance that the agency-reported data that it collects are accurate and complete. Regarding FSMS, NTIA suspended its development while a federally-funded research and development center completes an independent technical assessment of the software code. NTIA plans to leverage the validated system requirements and the compliance-checking code already developed in any future automated federal spectrum management capabilities.

    Recommendation: To facilitate the effective governmentwide management of federal spectrum use, and to provide the assurance that accurate and reliable data on federal spectrum use are collected, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information should take interim steps to establish internal controls for management oversight of the accuracy and completeness of currently reported agency data. In developing the new Federal Spectrum Management System, take interim steps to establish internal controls for management oversight of the accuracy and completeness of currently reported agency data. In developing the new Federal Spectrum Management System, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information should incorporate adequate internal controls for validating the accuracy of agency-reported information submitted during the assignment, certification, and frequency assignment review processes. should incorporate adequate internal controls for validating the accuracy of agency-reported information submitted during the assignment, certification, and frequency assignment review processes.

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

 

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