We all rely on our wireless devices daily, but most people probably don’t think about the process that leads to them being able to send our messages, videos, tweets (and now Threads) through the air. We also probably don’t think about how the spectrum your smartphone uses could also be used for military radar, GPS, and other wireless applications. Who gets what spectrum and how they use it is, however, an important, and (increasingly) contentious, policy process. And in the middle of much of it sits the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is part of the Department of Commerce and governs the federal government’s spectrum use.

At a recent Federalist Society panel discussion, two former NTIA administrators discussed how this puzzle of different and often competing interests fits together and what its implications are for American consumers and U.S. leadership in a wireless world. The two discussed how spectrum policy is changing in a world where crowded bands require coordination and compromise to achieve American national and economic security. They also described a need for greater White House participation to ensure NTIA can effectively play its lead role in spectrum policy, rather than being subject to extra-procedural end runs by other agencies.

As Congress debates spectrum legislation, it should pay special attention to the structure of the interagency process and incentives for federal agencies to use spectrum efficiency while relinquishing unnecessary capacity for commercial use. The current oversized influence in spectrum policy of agencies like the Department of Defense compared to NTIA can result in a status quo bias in which federal incumbents obstruct efficient spectrum use in order to avoid giving up their existing holdings. But, as the panelists pointed out, a thriving wireless economy is part of, not opposed to, federal policy goals like national defense. Moreover, many federal functions can get support from the private sector’s investment in research and development of new technologies. A cooperative approach that views commercial spectrum development as a complement, not a cost, in the advancement of critical federal missions. NTIA is well positioned to broker that balance if it is allowed to play its statutorily prescribed role.


Watch the full panel video here.

Note from the Editor: The Federalist Society takes no positions on particular legal and public policy matters. Any expressions of opinion are those of the author. We welcome responses to the views presented here. To join the debate, please email us at [email protected].