Commercial Access to Spectrum Necessary for National Security: Former NTIA Heads

‘If you take economic security out of the national security equation, you damage national security.’

Commercial Access to Spectrum Necessary for National Security: Former NTIA Heads
Screenshot of former NTIA Administrator John Kneuer

WASHINGTON, July 11, 2023 – National security depends on commercial access to spectrum, said former administrators for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at a Federalist Society event Tuesday.

“Our future competitiveness with China, our innovation lead in all of these critical industries are, in a large extent, predicated upon the commercial industry having access to the resources that it needs,” said John Kneuer. “It has to be a collaborative voice; it has to be a compromise.”

Spectrum bands, frequencies that wireless signals travel over, provide “immeasurable benefits” to the economy for new broadband capabilities, he said. Not only is it essential to protect the security of the American economy, but commercial spectrum is also a key component to national security, he said, referring the Department of Defense’s reticence to part with its spectrum.

“If you take economic security out of the national security equation, you damage national security and vice versa,” Kneuer stated.

The balance between these goals is always there but the solutions to achieving it will always evolve, added another former administrator David Redl. It is becoming more challenging to get spectrum for commercial needs due to its finite nature, he said. We have to find new, efficient ways to find the pieces that are missing withing the spectrum puzzle, he added.

Kneuer suggested that allowing the commercial sector access to more spectrum is beneficial to this goal as it spurs innovation that is a byproduct of increased economic activity that can then spill back into the federal agencies for new capabilities they would not have had otherwise.

There are not just economic benefits, but also operational benefits like spectrum technology to increase security in battlefield communications, said Kneuer. Federal agencies can lose their focus on these long-term benefits in the day-to-day immediate needs, he said.

Located within the Department of Commerce, the NTIA is the executive branch that is responsible to advise the president on telecommunications policy issues and manage the Federal government’s use of spectrum. Its Office of Spectrum Management is “dedicated to protecting the vital federal government operations that use spectrum while also supporting the growth of commercial wireless.”

Working alongside the NTIA is the Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency under the authority of Congress that primarily represents commercial needs and held spectrum authority auctions until its authority expired earlier this year.

Spectrum authority auctions, in which the FCC will allocate authority to use spectrum bands to the highest bidder, are the heart of the federal government’s involvement in spectrum. The revenue from the auctions is the “lubricant” for the entire process, said Kneuer.

The money from auctions “dwarfs” the costs of relocation and retraining in federal agencies that have their access to spectrum stripped away, he said. He added that it is essential that the FCC gets its auction authority restored.

The NTIA is responsible for providing the FCC with the spectrum it auctions. The agency’s goal is to get the best use out of spectrum, said Redl. Sometimes, it is necessary to protect federal agency’s right to the spectrum, other times it is required to side with commercial users, he said.

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