The authoritative news source for communications regulation
'Overcrowded Kitchen'

Administration's New Spectrum Strategy Appears to Leave IRAC as Important Player

The Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC), the longest-standing federal telecom advisory committee, predating the FCC, is expected to continue to play an important role in developing spectrum policy, though now it will work with the new Interagency Spectrum Advisory Council (ISAC), industry experts said. Some details about how IRAC and ISAC will collaborate remain to be determined, they added. The administration released its long-awaited national spectrum strategy, and a presidential memorandum on modernizing U.S. spectrum policy, two weeks ago (see 2311130048).

Start A Trial

ISAC will “serve as the principal interagency forum for agency heads to advise NTIA on spectrum policy matters and to ensure that all decisions NTIA makes take into consideration the diverse missions of the Federal Government,” the memorandum says. IRAC “shall continue to advise NTIA with respect to NTIA’s statutory role to develop and execute policies, programs, procedures, and technical criteria pertaining to the allocation, management, and Federal use of the electromagnetic spectrum,” it says.

A component of NTIA, IRAC may see somewhat expanded duties “just because of the way the executive order reads,” said Richard Bernhardt, Wireless ISP Association vice president-spectrum and industry. The memorandum makes clear NTIA will be the lead agency on spectrum research whenever research comes up “and that’s within the bailiwick of IRAC,” though for government frequencies, he said.

One question the memorandum raises is about the effect for the FCC on nonfederal bands, Bernhardt said. “Is the NTIA supposed to now get involved in those too?” he asked. Unclear is what happens when a band is “purely commercial” and, given the national strategy, how much NTIA will change its approach to oversight, he said: Is it going to use an internal agency like IRAC or “create a separate group?” he asked. IRAC usually hasn’t taken the lead on spectrum issues, he noted. The administration is focused on new ways to apportion responsibility and when IRAC was created there was no sharing, he said.

The new ISAC “is intended to reinforce NTIA’s role as the coordinator and spokesman for the administration’s spectrum policy,” Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Program at New America, wrote in an email. “It is notably intended to operate at a higher level than IRAC … and, unlike IRAC, will include White House staff,” he added.

IRAC will continue to serve “as a more technical and operational body attended by agency spectrum managers,” but the Biden administration appears to be “elevating both spectrum policy and NTIA by adding a new, “higher-level council to advise on the priorities, impacts and trade-offs of spectrum policy across the government,” Calabrese said. The new council is also consistent with the new and explicit process to appeal disagreements between NTIA and agencies to the White House. “Unfortunately, in recent years, agencies have been appealing their disagreements to Congress, to the FCC, or to the press,” he said.

Digital Progress Institute President Joel Thayer sees the administration’s spectrum push as confusing. The spectrum strategy discusses a need "to make interagency frameworks easier and more streamlined but doesn’t actually tell us where they think the hold-up is,” Thayer said. “It gets even more confusing with the memo’s inclusion of the IRAC and the creation of another advisory group,” he added: It’s not clear “how the two will coordinate and whether we’ll just be adding another cook to an already overcrowded kitchen.”

Little will likely change because of the memorandum, predicted Kristian Stout, International Center for Law & Economics director-innovation policy. “The IRAC will continue to operate as usual, and the creation of the ISAC appears to be more about engaging federal agency heads in the spectrum policy dialogue,” he said.

The memo could create the impression the ISAC is to be “a parallel IRAC that simply argues for the status quo,” emailed Joe Kane, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation director-broadband and spectrum policy. The new council could play a lead role in information gathering and long-term planning, he said. “Agencies should better inform themselves about the state of the art and how their devices and those of the industries they regulate comport with it,” he said: “They could also prepare for foreseeable changes to the interference environment. These would then be valuable inputs to the IRAC.”

Kane said the ISAC potentially could have headed off problems seen after the C-band auction (see 2303200069), looking at what radio altimeters were in use on commercial airliners and how poorly filtered they were. “They could have begun developing modernized altimeter performance standards, the implementation of which could have been made part of the FCC process,” he said.