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Aviation conflict highlights the need for spectrum management reform


When folks hear the term “5G”, they tend to think of faster internet capabilities and technological innovation. Recently, in the leadup to new 5G deployments, many Americans were led to believe a narrative that this would threaten aviation safety. To be clear, the United States government can and will promote both of these vital policy goals. But this dispute does highlight the importance of the underlying policy principles. So let’s take a step back.

One cannot understate the value that smart spectrum policy — the management of our nation’s airwaves — has brought to the American economy and consumers: the development and growth of Wi-Fi, multiple generations of mobile technologies, the iPhone, smart cities, autonomous vehicles, and precision agriculture. For the U.S., it has led to a successful digital economy, positioning our country as the world leader in tech innovation.

For decades we’ve made these benefits possible through the work of agencies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and their technical and engineering expertise.

Yet as our airwaves become more crowded, the government’s process for managing the use of airwaves is being strained. Even worse, the declining faith in how these decisions are made is beginning to show signs of jeopardizing the consumer and economic benefits we’ve enjoyed for generations. Although disagreements between various users can be contentious, in recent years those disputes have spilled out of the normal channels, with several high-profile technical disputes becoming politicized in the national media. Look no further than the intergovernmental fight over 5G use in the C-Band. We cannot remember a time in the past when a spectrum management dispute has been the topic of national news and dinner table conversation throughout the United States.

Fortunately, the Energy and Commerce Committee has decades of experience encouraging innovative use of our airwaves and providing the necessary oversight of these processes. As the leaders of its Communications and Technology Subcommittee, we are responsible for pursuing public oversight and restoring trust in the spectrum management process, and we are committed to doing so in a bipartisan fashion. As we examine where changes need to be made in this process, these principles will guide our work.

First, NTIA, the congressionally designated manager of federal spectrum, must continue to be recognized throughout the federal government as the entity authorized to balance the needs and concerns of federal spectrum users, and to communicate those interests to its governmental counterparts and the public.

Second, the establishment of clear rules and expectations for federal and other spectrum users will lead to better spectrum outcomes, providing federal users with sufficient spectrum to meet their current and future needs and fostering the valuable benefits to which the American people have grown accustomed.

Third, everyone should agree that the government process for managing these critical spectrum resources must rely on science and engineering to promote the goals of both the federal government and the American economy, not the institutional interests of a single federal agency. 

And fourth, the finality of such decisions is crucial. If we are to maintain U.S. leadership, the government needs to speak with one clear unified voice when it makes spectrum management decisions. Disagreements outside of the proper channels will only delay progress and make the spectrum allocation process more difficult.

Americans can trust that the 5G broadband rules will preserve aviation safety, and with these principles in place, our spectrum management process will work better — without raising public concerns or delaying technological advances. We recognize that spectrum use decisions are not always easy. While these processes, like our airwaves themselves, are unseen, we must get them right to secure America’s technological leadership and preserve the public interest.

Rep. Doyle is chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. Rep. Latta is ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

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