Electromagnetic spectrum is the range of radiation energy that carries everything from visible light to X-rays, microwaves, and gamma rays. A portion of that spectrum is used for communication applications, including FM and AM radios, cell phones, and other forms of wireless applications, such as radar. In the United States, it is the federal government’s responsibility to regulate the use of certain bands of spectrum, which can involve allocating bands to certain users and determining how bands are shared. With the rapid rise of wireless technology, demand for access to the spectrum has increased in recent years. Since 1994, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has auctioned licenses to use spectrum.

In March 2020, pursuant to a 2018 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the federal government auctioned off licenses to operate in a portion of spectrum to companies in the wireless communications industry after the FCC determined that the regulations it enacted would be sufficient to protect incumbent services from harmful interference. The aviation industry disagreed with that assessment, and maintained concerns that the accuracy of altimeters, which are safety-critical instruments that determine aircraft elevation, could be compromised. The debate came to a head in January 2022, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned that, without changes to the rollout, planes would be grounded around the country due to safety concerns. Considering the widespread impact of this potential action, the wireless technology companies voluntarily agreed to postpone their deployment and worked with the aviation stakeholders on a modified rollout.

While the immediate crisis was averted, it exposed critical and interrelated gaps and failures in the process and policies used for efficiently allocating spectrum.

For example, in this case, the FCC and FAA were not well coordinated on the timing and sufficiency of information regarding the technical specifications of radio altimeter and protection requirements. In addition, despite the complex, fast-moving, and safety-critical nature of wireless technology, government as a whole does not regularly update its standards for spectrum-using devices. The degradation of stable leadership and lack of working interagency relationships at many levels of government during this period served as another obstruction to amicable dispute resolution.

To address these shortcomings, the Eno Center for Transportation (Eno) and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) collaborated on an initiative to inform future spectrum allocations. These two independent, nonprofit organizations created a joint advisory group consisting of aviation and wireless spectrum experts, as well as those deeply familiar with federal spectrum allocation procedures. This group informed the research, evaluation, and development of specific, actionable recommendations to improve the process and avoid conflicts in the future.

These recommendations fall into four broad categories:

  1. Agencies and standards-setting organizations should look to improve spectrum-using devices’ resiliency to interference. Reforms are needed to improve resiliency, and periodic reviews of technical standards for spectrum-using devices are also necessary In addition, the federal government should develop rules to incentivize the development of more interference-resistant receivers. Congress should reform the Spectrum Relocation Fund to allow it to be used by spectrum users to develop technology for more efficient spectrum use.
  2. The federal government should invest in personnel that can properly operate and lead complex spectrum allocation processes. Given the expected demand for spectrum, the federal government should provide more resources to hire qualified engineers to address issues at a technical level rather than a political one. Federal agencies need to build better working relationships among their staff, while government leaders need to prioritize critical interagency connections.
  3. Final decisions on spectrum allocation need to be established based on clear testing, data, and definitions. The clash of studies from different stakeholders, each purporting to provide the best evidence, is a hallmark of interference disputes. Though no solution is likely to end all disagreements about the technically superior course of action, additional independence and systematization of basic parameters can help all parties be more confident and contest their analyses on a level playing field.
  4. The federal government should clarify and enforce jurisdictions and areas of expertise within the spectrum allocation process. Clear, up-front awareness of how disparate concerns are considered, and the preemptive sharing of some of those basic interests between the relevant agencies, will smooth the process when future spectrum management decisions are made.

These recommendations relate specifically to a recent spectrum allocation conflict between aviation and telecommunications. Yet it is important to note that this case was not the norm. While spectrum allocations are often contentious, this case was unusually problematic due to many process breakdowns. Nevertheless, that disagreement was not just a significant problem for both industries but for the nation itself—and it could have been prevented. Targeted reforms to improve the quality of personal relationships and expertise of players in the process, and to enhance the technological capabilities of devices, will go a long way toward averting problems in the future. The federal government should not wait until the next conflict to act.