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Cracking the Spectrum Reform Code

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peterpitsch.jpgBy Peter Pitsch, Executive Director of Federal Relations for Intel

Last week, Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly proposed a potentially breakthrough spectrum reform (“How to Free Up Government Held Spectrum in the Face of Increasing Budgetary Pressure,” FCC Blog, September 6, 2017).

As demand for mobile broadband continues to grow and with the new applications that can be supported by 5G, the need for additional spectrum to provide these services becomes crucial. Therefore, let’s hope that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney (or some folks close to them) read this insightful blog by Commissioner O’Rielly. Cracking the code on how to reform federal spectrum policy has not been easy for the reasons he lays out. Just rolling the federal agencies (read DoD) is not likely and probably not a good idea. So let’s try carrots.

We know that federal agencies do respond to incentives, when they are meaningful and reliable. Early in February 2009, Secretary of Defense Gates reached an agreement with President Obama and then OMB Director Peter Orszag setting the DoD 2010 base budget at $533.8 billion and the war supplemental budget at $130 billion. Secretary Gates then sought to get the Department of Defense leadership to rank spending alternatives on their “merits.” Gates recalls:

One key point I would keep repeating, especially for the military, was that this was not driven by a reduction in overall budget—money saved in some areas would be reinvested in programs of higher value. Robert M. Gates, Duty at 315 (Vintage 2015)

Overall, he chaired some 40 meetings with a long list of military and civilian officials inside the DoD at which everyone knew “hundreds of billions of dollars were at stake.” To the surprise of many Beltway insiders, he successfully ended 30 military programs, at the same time that he increased many others. For example, he halted “manpower reductions in the Air Force and Navy.” Commissioner O’Rielly’s proposal logically extends Secretary Gates’ common sense approach to include how an agency is using the radio spectrum. As demand for wireless broadband burgeons and with the promise of 5G in the offing, it may just be the way to bring stronger incentives to bear on the Federal government’s use of this scarce resource.