Congress aims to reauthorize Commerce telecom agency for first time in three decades

NTIA is seeking a big budget boost this year, and some lawmakers want to bolster the agency's authorities over issues ranging from federal spectrum management t...

Congress is considering reauthorization of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration this year, with leading lawmakers casting the agency in a critical role overseeing issues ranging from federal spectrum management and broadband Internet expansion to emerging developments in cybersecurity and artificial intelligence.

NTIA was last reauthorized 30 years ago. During a House Energy and Commerce communications and technology subcommittee hearing last week, Chairman Bob Latta (R-Ohio) introduced a discussion draft of his “National Telecommunication and Information Administration Reauthorization Act of 2023.”

The bill is among a raft of legislation the committee is considering this year affecting NTIA’s programs and authorities.

The reauthorization bill would elevate the administrator of NTIA from an assistant secretary position to be an under secretary of Commerce, on par with the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and other under secretariats at the department.

“NTIA’s mission has evolved significantly since it was last reauthorized in 1993,” Latta said. “Managing spectrum has become more important and more complex. The Internet has become a component of our everyday lives, and as a result, the demand for broadband access skyrocketed.”

Alan Davidson, the administrator of NTIA, testified that the top two challenges he faces are “resources” and “partnerships,” with the 157-person agency working with other federal agencies on spectrum management issues, as well as with states on the dispersal of billions in broadband grants for underserved communities.

“Those are some of the big things I’m focused on and especially making sure that we’re building an organization that can meet the challenge that Congress has given us,” Davidson said.

NTIA’s fiscal 2024 budget request includes $117.3 million and 235 positions, nearly double its 2023 budget authority of $62 million and 170 positions.

NTIA’s federal spectrum role

The proposed budget includes an additional $14 million and 6 positions to fund an “Informing Incumbent Capability” program under NTIA’s Spectrum Management portfolio.

“The IIC program is a mechanism for dynamically sharing spectrum in a given band that would enable managing interference between incumbent federal users and new entrants,” budget documents state.

Lawmakers are keen to strengthen NTIA’s role in managing federal spectrum, especially in the wake of the Federal Communication Commission’s controversial decision to approve telecommunications firm Ligado’s application to use spectrum near portions of the L-band used by GPS signals. NTIA led an unsuccessful petition by agencies, including the Defense Department and Transportation Department, to reverse the order due to concerns Ligado’s plans could interfere with GPS.

House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders are now pushing a bipartisan Spectrum Auction Reauthorization Act to extend the FCC’s spectrum auction authority. The bill would also reaffirm NTIA’s role as the manager of federal spectrum and direct the agency to work more closely with the FCC.

Davidson said spectrum coordination between agencies is “absolutely critical,” and said NTIA has made it a priority to work more closely with the FCC. Last year, the NTIA and the FCC updated a memorandum of understanding between the two entities for the first time in nearly 20 years, he added.

“We put that in place last summer, and it’s already bearing fruit,” Davidson said. “Our staffs are working together very closely. I’m in really constant communication with the chairwoman on a range of issues, but especially on spectrum issues, and that’s just the start. The other piece of this is working with the other federal agencies, and we’re doing a lot of what I call ‘shuttle diplomacy,’ a lot of time sitting with the agencies, understanding their needs, making sure we’re coordinated and meeting them.”

National spectrum strategy

NTIA is also developing a National Spectrum Strategy as it pushes to better utilize spectrum resources for fifth-generation (5G) wireless technologies and related developments.  The agency specifically plans to work with the Federal Communications Commission and other federal partners to study “in-depth” whether at least 1,500 megahertz of spectrum can be repurposed for “more intensive use,” according to a March 2023 request for information from NTIA.

Davidson said the agency received approximately 140 comments on the RFI.

“We’re moving out rapidly on a national spectrum strategy,” he said. “This is something we think will be really helpful to make sure that we’re planning and getting a pipeline for years to come.”

Communications and Technology Subcommittee Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) has also put forth a discussion draft of a “Spectrum Relocation Enhancement Act” to incentivize agencies to clear more spectrum for commercial use by allowing them to use money from the Spectrum Relocation Fund to buy wireless technology that meets their “operational requirements,” rather than replacing systems with a “comparable capability.”

Davidson backed the idea in principle.

“We need to have a steady pipeline of spectrum coming in to meet the needs of the private sector — and the public sector — if we’re going to continue to be the leaders in the world in wireless innovation,” he said. “We’re committed to that goal, and what you’ve just said would make a huge difference to align incentives, to give agencies greater incentive to find ways to make spectrum available.”

Artificial intelligence ‘accountability’

The revolution in generative AI models over the past year also has lawmakers looking to agencies to ensure there are guardrails in the rapidly developing technology.

NTIA is among the Commerce agencies contributing to the Biden administration’s approach to AI developments. The agency in April put out a request for comment on “AI accountability” that will help NTIA draft a report on “AI accountability policy development.” Comments are due June 12.

The effort lines up with draft legislation that would direct NTIA to conduct a study on AI accountability measures.

Davidson affirmed that his agency has a “very specific role” in driving AI accountability.

“We’re part of a broad federal effort to address the issues that are being raised by new AI technologies, and our part in particular is really focused on the policy side and what we can do to help make sure that AI systems are trustworthy, that they actually do what they say they’re going to do,” Davidson said.

He compared the approach to financial audits, and how oversight entities ensure the integrity of a company’s books.

“You do it after the fact to make sure that they actually made the money they said they made, paid the taxes they said they were going to pay,” Davidson said. “We want to make sure we can support the same kinds of systems for AI systems, and that’s the idea behind our work.”

Cybersecurity role at NTIA

Lawmakers are also considering draft legislation that would establish a “Digital Economy and Cybersecurity Board of Advisors” at NTIA.

The panel would advise NTIA on “technical cybersecurity best practices regarding how to drive economic growth while securing information and communications networks.”

While acknowledging other agencies lead in the cybersecurity space, Davidson said NTIA has a “big role in making sure that our broadband networks are secure, looking at our supply chain and recently even taking on issues like the security of the Internet router system, our Border Gateway Protocol, BGP, and making sure that even in areas like that, we’re a leading voice of expertise.”

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