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Biden's leadership vacuum may hamstring US spectrum strategy

A number of top officials in spectrum policy are calling for a more organized and unified approach to the management and allocation of the nation's airwaves.

"Whether it is freeing spectrum, expanding broadband, diversifying networks, securing communications, or leading internationally – we have embraced the idea that no single entity can meet this challenge alone. We need a whole-of-government approach to get this done," argued Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel during an NTIA spectrum event Tuesday.

Rosenworcel said that progress in areas including innovation and coordination would help turn "spectrum scarcity into spectrum abundance."

Rosenworcel made her comments during an NTIA event called "Modernizing US Spectrum Strategy And Infrastructure For 21st Century Global Leadership." The NTIA is a White House agency charged with managing government usage of spectrum. In the early days of the Biden administration, the agency pursued a renewed partnership with the FCC in an explicit attempt to break from the Trump administration's approach to spectrum management. Critics widely complained of disarray among the US government agencies charged with spectrum management during President Trump's four-year tenure.

During Tuesday's NTIA event, a number of policy makers cheered the renewed coordination between the FCC and the NTIA, but argued that the US government in general still needs to create a more cohesive strategy around spectrum allocation and management. A number of officials argued that such coordination is becoming even more important because the overall cache of unused spectrum in the US is shrinking, and the number of industries asking for more spectrum – including the 5G industry and the satellite industry – is growing.

"Spectrum management is not going to get any easier," explained Charles Cooper, an associate administrator in the NTIA's Office of Spectrum Management. Indeed, there are widespread worries in the 5G industry that government officials will pursue spectrum-sharing regimes more extensively.

"We need a national spectrum strategy," concluded Gina Raimondo, Biden's Secretary of Commerce.

"This seems to be an idea that everyone can get behind," agreed Umair Javed, an official in Rosenworcel's office, in discussing the need for a national spectrum strategy.

A strategy without leadership

However, there are growing concerns that the Biden administration is dragging its feet when it comes to installing leadership in the agencies that oversee the nation's spectrum resources.

"Is it a real possibility that there's a 2-1 Republican majority? The further we get in the year, the more that becomes a possibility," explained Chris Lewis, CEO of consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge, in recent comments to Ars Technica.

The publication noted that, because he has not named a fifth commissioner, Biden's FCC remains deadlocked between two Republicans and two Democrats. Further, Republicans on the commission could conceivably enjoy a majority as soon as January if the president does not pursue confirmation of another FCC commissioner by the end of the year. That's when Rosenworcel – who is Biden's acting FCC chair – may see her term at the agency end.

Others agreed, pointing out that Biden also has not named a permanent head for the NTIA.

"There continues to be significant interest in the [Biden] administration not announcing the nominations of the FCC chair, the third Democratic commissioner, and the head of NTIA, raising fears among progressives about the possibility, which we have noted before, of the Republicans gaining a majority status at the FCC in January. We think this is now a significant possibility," wrote the financial analysts with New Street Research in a recent note to investors.

"We're now down into essentially a month of legislative business in the United States Senate, and getting somebody through in this environment and in this period of time is difficult," former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said recently, according to FierceTelecom. "So I have a level of concern about this."

And that leadership vacuum has been affecting the FCC's business, according to some officials. The FCC "can't really move ahead on anything that is the least bit controversial within the Beltway," Matt Wood, the general counsel of public-interest group Free Press, told Ars Technica.

However, the New Street analysts speculated that Biden is waiting on Congressional approval of his massive infrastructure proposal – which earmarks $65 billion for broadband in the US – before naming permanent leaders to the FCC and the NTIA. After all, he has promised to pursue a return to net neutrality guidelines that would surely anger Republicans.

"We expect that nominations will be forthcoming – we suspect that they will be announced after the infrastructure bill is passed – but we acknowledge that we have heard multiple times that nominations were expected shortly," the New Street analysts wrote.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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