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25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
A series of posts describing how this all came about. (Click on picture above)

Monday, December 15, 2008

New GAO Report on Federal Agency Spectrum Use:

In Post 9/11 Era Old Problems Continue

A new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes that the federal agencies that use spectrum continue their traditional practices of building and operating their own individual radio systems systems despite the penalties associated with such independent operations with respect to
  • inefficient spectrum use
  • interoperability problems and
  • increased cost
But don't blame FCC for this one. Federal spectrum use is not FCC's job - indeed FCC can not even assign itself spectrum for its own internal operations. The Communications Act of 1934 follows its 1928 predecessor and gives jurisdiction over federal spectrum use to the President (47 USC 305). The President, being rather busy with other things, delegates this chore to the others. For a long time it was delegated to the Office of Telecommunications Policy (and its predecessor, the Office of Telecommunications Management) in the White House. But in a series of actions begun by President Nixon and finished by President Carter the functions of OTP moved out of the White House to the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Frankly it isn't clear what Nixon and Carter were trying to accomplish in these changes. One legend is that Nixon wanted to bring additional staff into the White House, e.g. the Watergate-era "plumbers", so he had to trim other staff.

NTIA is headed by the Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information, presently Meredith Attwell Baker. The fundamental problem in federal spectrum management is that an assistant secretary in the Commerce Department, no matter how well intentioned, can not tell other federal agencies how to use their radio spectrum and how to spend their own money on wireless systems. Thus, in practice almost all federal agency spectrum policy is made in practice by Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC), consisting of military and civilian federal employees who represent their agencies. The IRAC meets secretly every two weeks in a windowless room in the Commerce Department - although outsiders can occasionally make presentations on matters of mutual interest. While from time to time the NTIA staff jawbones the IRAC members, most of the time NTIA's Office of Spectrum Management could be better called the "IRAC Secretariat" - scheduling meetings and compiling the wishes of IRAC members.

So it is no surprise what GAO has found it its new report.

The tragic events of September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina have highlighted the critical importance of having effective radio communications systems for law enforcement and public safety agencies including federal agencies with such responsibilities. In order to effectively respond to events such as natural disasters, criminal activities, and domestic terrorism, law enforcement and public safety agencies need reliable systems that enable communication with their counterparts in other disciplines and jurisdictions. Further, since the 1990s, increasing demand for radio communications capabilities in both the private and public sectors has created a need to use radio communications capacity more efficiently.

The Integrated Wireless Network (IWN) was intended to be a collaborative effort among the Departments of Justice (DOJ), Homeland Security (DHS), and the Treasury to provide secure, seamless, interoperable,1 and reliable nationwide wireless communications in support of federal agents and officers engaged in law enforcement, protective services, homeland defense, and disaster response missions. This initiative, begun in 2001, was originally estimated to cost approximately $5 billion.


DOJ, DHS, and the Treasury had originally intended IWN to be a joint radio communications solution to improve communication among law enforcement agencies; however, IWN is no longer being pursued as a joint development project. Instead of focusing on a joint solution, the departments have begun independently modernizing their own wireless communications systems.

In abandoning collaboration on a joint solution, the departments risk duplication of effort and inefficiency as they continue to invest significant resources in independent solutions. Further, these efforts will not ensure the interoperability needed to serve day-to-day law enforcement operations or a coordinated response to terrorist or other events. While collaboration on a joint solution is critical for success, this joint solution need not be based necessarily on a single, nationwide network, such as an extension of the original IWN design. It could also consist of a mutually agreed-upon strategy for developing separate but interoperable networks and systems that incorporate lessons learned from past efforts.

We have previously written how the UK's spectrum managers created a nationwide interoperable public safety system called "Airwave". If the US can't even get 3 federal agencies to cooperate, how could we ever make significant progress in public safety interoperability? (Note that Airwave uses Tetra technology which is not the choice for a new system in the US at this time. This comment on Airwave deals with the UK government's effective leadership, not the specific technology they chose a decade ago for a different environment.)

Several years ago the White House noted that the organizational structure needed some changing and proposed to move NTIA to Commerce's Undersecretary for Technology. (At present this post is vacant.) The federal agencies vehemently protested, claiming that putting another layer between NTIA and a cabinet official would decrease NTIA's power. In reality they were almost certainly concerned that the
Undersecretary for Technology was a higher level political appointee than the head of NTIA and that as a federal CTO-like official could actually start supervising the policies developed in IRAC rather than rubber stamping them. The IRAC members want NTIA to act as their cheerleader, propagandist, and file clerk. What the country and federal spectrum management really need is "tough love" and leadership from whoever exercises the President's §305 authority. The Secretary of Defense is the Executive Agent for communications security and the Director, National Security Agency is the national manager for COMSEC matters. They consult with agencies about COMSEC policies, but they do not kowtow to them as NTIA does.

Note to the Obama Administration: If you want to improve spectrum management - the key to a lot of potential economic growth - you must make NTIA and IRAC more accountable for their policies and actions. Much as I hate reorganizations, I really think NTIA's spectrum management function either has to be moved back to the White House or put under the federal CTO or CIO. Someone has to be asking federal spectrum users hard questions, not just stapling together their individual requests. Only then can the government seek ways to balance federal, state and local government, and private sector spectrum use in a coherent national policy.

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