GAO says NTIA’s data does not ensure spectrum efficiency

The federal government’s General Accounting Office (GAO) has concluded that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) — responsible for managing the government’s use of spectrum — cannot currently ensure the efficient use of the nation’s airwaves.

“NTIA primarily relies on individual agencies to ensure that the systems they develop are as spectrum-efficient as possible,” the GAO report said. “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 government wide.”

The nine federal agencies that GAO reviewed have improved spectrum efficiency. But this happened only when the agency in question needed to make greater use of available spectrum to meet a mission requirement — not by an underlying, systematic consideration of spectrum efficiency, the GAO said.

The agency said 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,” the GAO said.

As an example, the GAO cited software-defined cognitive radios — receivers that adapt their use of the spectrum to the real-time conditions of their operating environments. Such radios 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,” the GAO said.

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, the GAO said.

“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,” the report said.

“Because of budget and resource limitations, NTIA as a historical matter does not police federal agency spectrum use or federal agency reporting,“ Commerce Secretary Gary Locke wrote in response to a draft of the GAO report.