The National Technology Innovation Administration

Credit: Wonderful Idea Co.

Wednesday’s hearing in the House Communications and Technology subcommittee features NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson, the missing witness from the Aviation subcommittee’s hearing on the FAA two weeks ago. The FAA’s meltdown over the 5G C-Band came about from a lack of leadership, wherein the three critical players are the FCC, the FAA, and NTIA.

The hearing memo doesn’t call out the FAA issue, and neither does Davidson’s rather terse written testimony. But it would be a major missed opportunity if the issue didn’t get some attention.

I expect today’s press releases from the FCC and NTIA are intended to blunt some of the criticism of the two agencies’ lack of coordination. In it, they promise to join each other’s advisory councils and meet monthly. That’s a good start, but it doesn’t go very far.

Too Much Politics, Not Enough Tech

The aviation industry needs 800 MHz of contiguous spectrum to figure out the altitude of an airplane. That consists of the authorized 200 MHz for direct signaling plus two guard bands of 300 MHz apiece above and below the authorized band; 200 + 300 + 300 = 800.

Aviation cried wolf because the FCC was only willing to give them 220 MHz guard bands. For context on these figures, kindly appreciate that broadcast television as a whole only requires 328 MHz, from 470 – 806 MHz, and much of that is shared.

Why does aviation need almost three times as much spectrum as the entire TV broadcasting industry just to suss out the distance between the belly of an airplane and the ground? They’ve never really explained this, but if they did the song and dance would probably come down to “that’s what we needed in 1955 and we still use the same gear.”

The Efficient Administration of the Status Quo

When your approach to inter-agency coordination is “let’s have more meetings!” it’s not surprising that the overall focus of the government spectrum policy is maintaining the status quo. That’s what goes on in these meetings the FCC and NTIA plan to attend.

Tune into a webcast of the FCC’s TAC and CSRIC and you’ll hear a lot of lobbyists and retirees talking about reliability and security. Check out NTIA’s CSMAC and you’ll hear much of the group discussing the same questions. Both agencies pay lip service to more efficient use of spectrum across their respective portfolios – government for CSMAC and the private sector for TAC – but that’s as far as it goes.

Because spectrum is over-allocated to government and to unlicensed uses, the companies that have to pay for spectrum rights do all of the work on making spectrum use more efficient and powerful. The government interest is in maintaining control of its out-sized holdings and the unlicensed industry simply wants more and more free spectrum.

Reducing Government’s Spectrum Holdings

Congress can remedy the stagnation in government spectrum use by passing a law requiring government as a whole to cut its reliance on first-right or excusive access to spectrum in half over the next five years. It should be allowed to meet the goal by contracting its systems that use spectrum today to market suppliers (as FirstNet has,) or by re-engineering its systems to be more efficient and releasing the excess to the FCC for auction.

FirstNet’s operator is free to sell services to the private sector after it has met its service obligation to government. That should be the normal way government agencies access wireless systems.

The first question that should be put to Administrator Davidson should be “How can we reduce aviation’s reliance on mid-band spectrum to a level that’s not absolutely disgraceful?” That probably won’t happen Wednesday, but it is fundamental.

How We Got Here

US government agencies have never addressed technology in the holistic way the private sector does. This isn’t a lack of virtue, it’s built-in to an incentive structure. Aviation gets top marks when there are no 737 MAX fiascos, not when some new app pops up on mobile devices.

So government’s use of technology has always been driven by the desire of each agency to perform each task without making headlines. The private sector looks at aviation’s 800 MHz sounding rope and asks “what could I do with a quarter of that?”

I think that’s the better question. When lawmakers put aviation on a diet perhaps agencies will begin asking the better questions themselves.

Attitudes of Scarcity Lead to Better Results

The Western United States is running out of water. The worst drought in 1,200 years is ravaging the region and there are no signs of remission.

The only way through this is get better at managing and using water than we have been. While RF spectrum isn’t in a similar crisis yet, it’s wise to prepare for an eventuality where demand far outstrips supply. Spectrum, like water, is a finite resource at each point in time even if both are reusable.

For the past twenty years, tech policy wags such as Larry Lessig have touted the virtues of a new normal based on the assumption of abundance.

My position has always been that we should regulate as lightly as we can to get a network where the business model of network owners is abundance, not scarcity. That means that network owners aren’t pricing access and striking exclusive deals with content providers with the purpose of exploiting (and hence profiting from) scarcity.

So as I said at the F.C.C. hearing (and two years before during at least three events in Washington, D.C.), my judgment is that a ban on discriminatory access is all that it necessary to achieve this objective.

This notion is based in expectations that Moore’s Law would last forever, which it probably won’t. We had better use its last years to get a head start on the more efficacious uses of spectrum that may come about in the future.

What Can NTIA Do to Help?

Most of Congress’s priorities for NTIA – and NTIA’s own priorities – are sound. Closing the Digital Divide would be a good thing, as would better safety and security for Internet users and holding China’s international ambitions in check.

But we’re not going to improve digital inclusion by building more networks and we’re not going to balance spectrum use in the future by sending more people to meetings.

We need lawmakers to set ambitious goals for the growth of the tech sector and for government efficiency. This planet will soon be home to 10-12 billion people and we’re not manufacturing more of the finite resources they’re all going to need to live well.

With such a goal in mind, tinkering with the roles, responsibilities, incentives, and calendars of government agencies may become a bit more tractable. Let’s start asking NTIA to be the National Technology Innovation Administration.