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Words From Charlie - Foreword to The 2017 Roundtable on Spectrum Policy Report

Each year the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program convenes approximately 25 business, government, academic and non-profit leaders and experts to address regulatory issues associated with management of the electronic spectrum. Its allocation and regulation are arcane elements of communications policy-making, and require a deep knowledge of both the technical and legal aspects—yet it couldn’t be more critical to the communications of this or any country. Despite the centrality of spectrum regulation and management to communications, it is often overshadowed by its more visible cousins. It is what broadcasters use to send their programs, telecommunications companies use to send data wirelessly, and the Wi-Fi that many use daily to access the Internet. It is radio-astronomy, garage door openers and satellite communications. It is the life blood of communications.

This said, there are new uses of spectrum that will challenge current regulatory regimes. The Internet of Things (IoT), Fifth Generation (5G) wireless technology and drones are a few of the newer uses, coming on top of an already heavily used resource. The question the group faced in the fall of 2017 was how the use cases of IoT, 5G and drones impact the apparatus that the government uses to manage this resource. That in turn is exacerbated by the different venues within the government that spectrum management takes place—the Federal Communications Commission for commercial spectrum, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for government spectrum, many particular agencies for internal spectrum management, and the International Telecommunications Union for international coordination and management.

The aim of the meeting, then, was to determine if another structure or system for governmental regulation and for spectrum management is advisable, and to suggest what that alternative might look like.

This report, ably written by communications attorney and former FCC official Ruth Milkman, conveys several creative proposals from the group—and specifically from three working groups at the meeting—to address better management of spectrum in light of the new demands on the system. The most significant and developed of the proposals is in dealing with drones. There, the group advocated for the Federal Aviation Administration to create a new Aviation Rulemaking Committee to consider a Spectrum Access System (SAS)-like regime for drones. Details are in the report.

A second major recommendation to emanate from the meeting is to establish an Executive Branch Interagency Coordinating Council to Manage Broadband Governance. By looking at broadband generally, rather than just spectrum, the Council would bring about more rational and coordinated policy. It would address issues of 5G, IoT and socially beneficial uses of spectrum. Again, the report details the specifics of what such a Council could do and why it is advisable. The group also considered another proposal, originally proposed elsewhere by Tom Leonard, for a General Services Administration for Spectrum, and the report details the group’s consideration of the merits and disadvantages of that approach.

There are several other specific suggestions and recommendations in the report worthy of consideration by top policy-makers. What is clear is that it is time for a more coordinated approach to spectrum management.
On behalf of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, I thank the organizations who provided financial support to our work as a whole this year, and those who participated in the 2017 Spectrum Roundtable: Google, AT&T, Facebook, Verizon, Charter Communications, Ligado Networks, New Street Research and T-Mobile. Thanks, also, to Ruth Milkman for bringing the disparate and difficult concepts to paper in a readable and understandable manner. Finally, I thank our Project Director, Kiahna Cassell, for organizing and managing the Roundtable, and our Program’s Managing Director Tricia Kelly for her assistance in editing and producing this report.

Charles M. Firestone
Executive Director
Communications and Society Program
The Aspen Institute
April 2018

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