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Spectrum policy is shaped by decisions made by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), acting on the statutory authority given to it by Congress. The FCC was created as part of the Communications Act of 1934[1] as the successor to the Federal Radio Commission, which was formed under the Radio Act of 1927.[2] The first statute covering the regulation of airwaves in the United States was the Radio Act of 1912, which gave the statutory authority to assign usage rights (licenses) to the Secretary of the Department of Commerce and Labor.[3] Licensing was necessary in part because, as radio communications grew, it became crucial that frequencies be reserved for specific uses or users, to minimize interference among wireless transmissions.[4]

The purpose of spectrum policy, laws, and regulation is to manage a natural resource for the maximum possible benefit of the public. Although radio frequency spectrum is abundant, usable spectrum is limited by the constraints of technology. Spectrum policy therefore entails making decisions about how radio frequencies will be allocated and who will have access to them. Radio frequency spectrum is managed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for commercial and other non-federal uses and by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for federal government use.

Current spectrum policy relies heavily on auctions to assign spectrum rights through licensing.

Impact on broadband[]

Ideally, spectrum policy should be synchronized with broadband policy. The effort to move to energy efficiency is an example of how spectrum policy can affect other policy goals. The installation of smart meters in homes and other buildings is a key component of Smart Grid planning. Furthermore, an efficient Smart Grid requires spectrum capacity to support the broadband communications infrastructure required to operate the grid. A Smart Grid policy that presumes the availability of suitable spectrum for wireless connections could fall short of its intended goal unless spectrum policy is aligned.

The National Broadband Plan (NBP) has proposed to increase spectrum capacity by:

To facilitate the deployment of broadband in rural areas, the NBP also has proposed:

Many of the NBP proposals for wireless broadband may be achieved through changes in FCC regulations governing spectrum allocation and assignment. Other actions may require changes by federal agencies, state authorities, and commercial owners of spectrum licenses.

To assist the implementation of the NBP there are also a number of areas where congressional action might be required to change existing statutes or to give the FCC new powers.

Legislation has been proposed that would create an inventory of existing users on prime radio frequencies, a preliminary step in evaluating policy changes.[5] The NBP included the announcement of plans for the FCC to create what it refers to as a Spectrum Dashboard.[6]

The initial release of the FCC’s Spectrum Dashboard provided an interactive tool to search for information about how some non-federal frequency assignments are being used.[7] The dashboard could be expanded to meet requirements set by Congress for a spectrum inventory.

In addition to the dashboard, the NBP has proposed that the FCC and the NTIA should create methods for recovering spectrum[8] and that the FCC maintain an ongoing spectrum strategy plan.[9] All of these steps will facilitate decisions about spectrum management by providing detailed information about the current and potential use of spectrum resources.

The Obama Administration has supported the FCC’s recommendations regarding means to increase the amount of spectrum capacity for wireless broadband.[10] In particular, the NTIA has been directed to collaborate with the FCC to identify spectrum holdings that can be made available for wireless broadband use. A deadline of October 1, 2010, has been set for the completion of a plan and timetable for releasing a total of 500 MHz of spectrum by 2020.


International use is facilitated by numerous bilateral and multilateral agreements covering many aspects of usage, including mobile telephony.


  1. 47 U.S.C. §151.
  2. Pub. L. No. 632, §3.
  3. Pub. L. No. 264, “License.”
  4. The Radio Act of 1912 was passed partly in response to radio problems — including interference — associated with the sinking of the Titanic. Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Commerce, 62nd Congress, 2nd Sess., pursuant to S. Res. 283, "Directing the Committee on Commerce to Investigate the Cause Leading to the Wreck of the White Star Liner 'Titanic,'" testimony of Guglielmo Marconi et al.
  5. Radio Spectrum Inventory Act introduced in the Senate (S. 649, Kerry) and the similar House-introduced Radio Spectrum Inventory Act (H.R. 3125, Waxman).
  6. Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan, Recommendation 5.1.
  7. More information on the Spectrum Dashboard is available here.
  8. Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan, Recommendation 5.2.
  9. Id., Recommendation 5.2.
  10. The White House, Presidential Memorandum: Unleashing the Wireless Broadband Revolution, June 28, 2010.[1]

See also[]