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Operational Excellence in Federal Spectrum Management

Operational Excellence in Federal Spectrum Management

One of the core functions of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is to manage federal uses of wireless spectrum to make the most efficient use of this precious resource. It’s complex, technical work performed by a team of resourceful engineers who labor behind the scenes to ensure that federal agencies have the radio spectrum they need to perform all sorts of mission-critical functions. 

For instance, the Federal Aviation Administration relies on spectrum to safely navigate planes. The Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) depends on spectrum to communicate with weather satellites tracking storms. And the Pentagon uses spectrum to operate everything from radar systems to weapons systems. 

NTIA’s Office of Spectrum Management makes this possible. And while the office has performed this vital mission for years, it’s a task that is taking on added urgency and facing mounting pressure amid skyrocketing commercial-sector demand for spectrum to fuel the explosive growth of wireless broadband. 

The wild popularity of iPhones, Android devices and other mobile gadgets of all sorts – which consumers are using to upload picture to Facebook, watch videos on YouTube and devour other multimedia content – is driving unprecedented demand for bandwidth for licensed and unlicensed commercial wireless services. 

To balance the growing need for spectrum among commercial users and federal agencies alike, NTIA’s Office of Spectrum Management is collaborating with the Federal Communications Commission to identify spectrum that can potentially be repurposed for commercial use and to promote spectrum sharing across the public and private sectors. Against this backdrop, NTIA’s spectrum engineers are working closely with federal agencies to ensure that they are using their assigned frequencies as efficiently as possible. 

Multiple teams in NTIA’s Office of Spectrum Management support this critical work. Two that achieved “operational excellence” in fiscal 2013 – getting more done with fewer resources, while still meeting exacting engineering quality standards – are the Systems Review Branch and the Frequency Assignment Branch. 

The job of the Systems Review Branch is to review proposed federal wireless systems to ensure they would use spectrum efficiently and not cause harmful interference for other authorized users. This branch works with 19 federal agencies to conduct reviews of proposed systems from the conceptual stage all the way through to actual deployment – often recommending technical adjustments before approving a system. 

In fiscal 2013, the Systems Review Branch faced a 51 percent increase in federal agency requests for certification of proposed systems, and was able to complete 88 percent more reviews even while operating with reduced staff. The team accomplished this by establishing a tracking matrix of certification requests and assigned reviewers, and by creating a database of existing certificates to provide information about users already active in each frequency band. The Systems Review Branch also assigned reviewers to submissions based on their area of expertise, ensuring that the same reviewer handled a submission throughout the entire review process – from system conception to experimentation to development to operation. 

After a federal system has been certified, it is the job of the Frequency Assignment Branch is to coordinate among federal agencies and assign the actual radio frequencies that the system will use without causing harmful interference. The branch, which maintains a master file of more than 450,000 federal frequency assignments, processes 350 to 400 applications a day and approves most within nine workdays. It, too, is seeing increased demand for new federal frequency assignments as federal spectrum needs increase and as some existing federal systems are relocated to new bands to free up more spectrum for commercial broadband. 

Even with 20 percent fewer employees, the Frequency Assignment Branch approved 151,500 more frequency assignments in fiscal 2013, up 18 percent from fiscal 2012. It did this by developing systems to automate the detection and correction of errors in applications and to validate frequency assignments. It also enhanced employee productivity by assigning proposals to engineers based on their area of expertise. 

These are the types of unsung accomplishments that don’t always get the attention they deserve. NTIA’s spectrum engineers conduct their challenging work outside the spotlight of Washington’s heated policy debates and Silicon Valley’s booming innovation economy. But their efforts and achievements help ensure that agencies across the federal government can perform their mission-critical functions. And that benefits the American people.

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