Aging IT systems pose wider questions about federal spectrum allocation

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A push to update the IT systems used to allocate spectrum to federal agencies is raising broader questions about the use of radio frequency bands across government.

Former government technology officials canvassed by FedScoop welcomed recent calls to update Spectrum XXI and the Equipment Location-Certification Information Database, but said any such IT modernization push should be accompanied with a wider rethink of the spectrum allocation process.

“For a long time there has been a tendency for agencies to hoard frequencies that they do not need, which has to change. The Supreme Court, for example, has its own frequency band, which is totally unnecessary,” said one former IT official with close knowledge of the spectrum allocation process.

They added: “Spectrum XXI is extremely cumbersome, and has been in use since the 1990s, but in some ways focusing on this without looking at the whole process is somewhat missing the point,” they added.

The comments come after a government watchdog in February raised concerns about the age of Spectrum XXI and the Equipment Location-Certification Information Database. Both systems are used by agency to determine current use of spectrum and to request additional frequency allocation from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) at the Department of Commerce.

GAO in its report advocated that replacement IT systems should be adopted, and highlighted the potential cybersecurity risks from such platforms.

One current federal official added that departments across government would benefit from increased transparency in a future system, which is challenged by increasingly complex demands from the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community.

“UAVs and other technologies have a key role to play in the future of this country’s defense, but also present a challenge because the DOD tends to use a national security justification to hog spectrum,” the official added.

Multiple current and former officials also said that in some cases the amount of spectrum allocated for emergencies was unnecessary.

Currently, federal agencies must follow a laborious, multi-step process to request spectrum from the NTIA, which is intended to prevent interference between different users. It involves submitting any request for review by an IRAC Frequency Assignment Subcommittee, which then reviews any request for possible objections and works to solve any inter-agency disputes.

In a February report, GAO said: “We have previously reported that limitations in existing IT systems do not readily enable agencies to collect or share the kinds of time and location data on their spectrum use that are needed to identify sharing opportunities.”

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Department of Commerce (DOC), GAO, Modernization Special 2022, NTIA, spectrum management
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