Bipartisan lawmakers call for watchdog probe into government telecom office

Bipartisan lawmakers call for watchdog probe into government telecom office
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Bipartisan committee leaders are calling for a watchdog investigation into the top office tasked with advising the White House on telecommunications issues.

In a letter on Friday, the leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look into "breakdowns" at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an embattled office within the Commerce Department that has been accused of inefficiency and lackluster leadership during the Trump administration.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and ranking member Rep. Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenOvernight Energy: Green groups to sue over Trump rollback of Obama water rules | GOP climate plan faces pushback from right | Bezos launches B climate initiative GOP climate plan faces pushback — from Republicans Coalition plan seeks to cut carbon emissions in half by 2035 MORE (R-Ore.) wrote they are concerned that NTIA has abdicated its responsibility to help government agencies coordinate on technology issues.

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Specifically, NTIA is tasked with mediating fights among federal agencies over spectrum — the invisible radio frequencies that wireless signals travel over. Typically, the Commerce Department office mediates those arguments behind closed doors and makes final calls over which agencies should have access to which kinds of federal spectrum.

But over the past year, those conflicts have spilled out into the open as top officials within NTIA found themselves bogged down by infighting at the Commerce Department and escalating clashes with other agencies. Over the past year, agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, the Department of Defense and more have fought publicly over spectrum issues. 

"The NTIA’s mandate is to manage federal spectrum use by allocating, in collaboration with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), spectrum for exclusive and shared federal use," Walden and Pallone wrote.

"Last year, it was clear that the federal spectrum management process broke down," they continued. "Rather than working through the NTIA as the central repository and manager of federal spectrum, we are concerned that many of the federal agencies with spectrum allocations may have circumvented this statutory process."

They are asking the government auditing office to look into why the spectrum process broke down and how the NTIA can better coordinate with its statutory partner in spectrum management, the FCC.

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A GAO spokesman confirmed to The Hill that the office has received the request. The spokesman said it will go through a weeks-long review process before the GAO decides what to do. 

Last year, the NTIA faced heavy turnover and two top administrators stepped down within seven months of one another, leaving the agency behind in its efforts to help the U.S. handle the race toward implementing next-generation wireless networks.

Updated 3:19 P.M.