NTIA to develop national spectrum strategy in 2023

Speaking at last week’s CES conference in Las Vegas, Alan Davidson, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, talked about the agency’s plan to advance open Radio Access Networks (open RAN). But he also reminded the audience that the NTIA wears another important hat: It manages federal spectrum use and serves as the President’s advisor on spectrum policy.

This means that the NTIA works together with the FCC to manage spectrum when a federal user is involved. From a practical perspective, the Department of Defense has historically held a lot of valuable spectrum for national security use, making the DoD an incumbent user in many spectrum bands.

In 2023 NTIA will be working with federal agency partners to develop a national spectrum strategy, which will provide a long-term plan to meet both commercial and federal spectrum needs. 

Davidson said NTIA has “a deep appreciation for federal usage.” But he said the NTIA also recognizes “the imperative that the United States must continue to lead the world in innovative uses of wireless spectrum,” which could be considered a nod to those who want more spectrum for 5G, 6G and beyond.

Currently, there are myriad organizations lobbying for more spectrum. The most immediate concern is the 3.1-3.45 GHz band. Some companies — namely the big wireless carriers represented by the trade group CTIA — want this spectrum auctioned for exclusive, licensed use. While other organizations prefer spectrum-sharing schemes such as what the FCC and DoD implemented for the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum.

There are federal incumbents in the 3.1-3.45 GHz, so the NTIA is involved in discussions about the best use of this band.

Anything could happen with the 3.1-3.45 spectrum, including making all of it available for auction; making all of it available for spectrum sharing; or striking some kind of compromise where some of it is freed up for spectrum sharing and some of it is auctioned.

Richard Bernhardt, senior director for Spectrum and Industry at WISPA, said, “I think one of the things we’re lacking is a forward-looking outlook on spectrum strategy. We can’t make spectrum strategy about everything today and ignore tomorrow.”

In his comments last week Davidson said, “Here at CES, spectrum is being used for so many new and innovative applications outside of 5G and WiFi – we need to make sure that innovators and entrepreneurs can access spectrum resources so they can keep bringing exciting new products to market.”

Open RAN

Davidson also made some brief remarks about open RAN.

“A key part of boosting competition is ensuring new players can emerge,” he said. “This has not been the case when it comes to the gear that makes up the backbone of today’s wireless networks. One driver is China, which has been sheltering and subsidizing national champion suppliers for years, creating global security risks to the wireless equipment supply chain we cannot ignore.”

He said the limited number of “trustworthy vendors” in the market today creates risks for both U.S. companies and consumers.

As part of the Chips Act, Congress created a $1.5 billion Innovation Fund, and in 2023, the NTIA will begin awarding grants from this fund to help spur open RAN technologies. 

The agency is looking for broad input on the best way to catalyze the open RAN market. It will host a listening session later this month and take comments until January 27 on how to best structure the program.