ARRL

The Other FCC: The NTIA

Eric P. Nichols, KL7AJ


You thought the Federal Communications Commission handled federal communications — think again.


For many radio amateurs, the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) seems akin to the NSA (No Such Agency). Most of us have vaguely heard a few bits and pieces about the NTIA, but have no real idea what it is, or what it does. In reality, most radio amateurs have no official interaction with the NTIA, but many of us have dealings with the NTIA in our professional careers. The NTIA is the federal equivalent of the FCC with authority over federal radio communications while the FCC is concerned with nonfederal communications.

The NTIA actually has an interesting history, though not as old as the FCC’s, going back only to 1978. In fact, on NTIA’s own website, there is a very good history of radio regulation in general, going back to the turn of the last century.

Just like the “pre-FCC” of ancient history, the NTIA is within the Department of Commerce. The “genetic line” of the NTIA actually is a combination of the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy and the Commerce Department’s Office of Telecommunications. These were merged in 1978 to form the NTIA.

I first became aware of the NTIA in the late 1980s while helping design the High Power Auroral Stimulation (HIPAS) Observatory (sadly, now decommissioned) for the purpose of ionospheric studies. I learned that the monstrous HF ionospheric heating transmitters were licensed not by the FCC, but by this mysterious entity, the NTIA. I had further dealings with them while obtaining a license to build a new ionosonde (ionospheric sounder), for which the FCC granted no license.

Looking at Figure 1, we see that there is actually a well-defined division of responsibility between the NTIA and the FCC. In effect, the NTIA has jurisdiction over all federal government communications, while the FCC has everything else. In accordance with this, the venerable Voice of America shortwave station (see Figure 2) is licensed by the NTIA, not the FCC. Likewise, a great deal, if not most, scientific and research communications fall under the authority of the NTIA.

Political Genealogy

Politically speaking, there’s a notable difference between the NTIA and the FCC. The FCC is an independent agency overseen by Congress, while the NTIA is an executive branch agency that draws its authority from the President. There is also a fat horizontal umbilical cord between the FCC and the NTIA called “coordination.” The vast majority of the FCC and NTIA frequency allocations are shared. Occasionally there will be a border scrimmage between FCC licensed entities and NTIA issued licenses, but these are actually very rare. A good example of how well this coordination normally works is with the MARS frequency assignments.

It’s particularly interesting to note that while the NTIA has full jurisdiction over federal government communications, it has none over state or local government communications; these are still under the FCC.

In many cases it’s possible to obtain an NTIA “assignment” (the NTIA’s terminology for a license) by applying through the FCC. This avoids an inefficient duplication of effort (imagine that!) in cases where frequency allocations are already well coordinated between the agencies. The routine military licenses we have on the Air Force base where I work are usually renewed through the FCC, which takes care of all the NTIS liaison work for us. On the other hand, for more specialized NTIA communications, such as the aforementioned ionosonde assignments and such, I’ve had to apply directly to the NTIA.

Lots of Frequencies

In order to get a grasp of the magnitude of the NTIA’s coordination task (as well as that of the FCC), you need only read over the Federal Spectrum Use Summary, which shows all the allocations between 30 MHz and 3 THz (Yes, that’s terahertz). There’s another similar document, nearly equal in size for frequencies below 30 MHz (see Figure 3).

Note that while everything above 300 GHz is considered “unallocated” this is simply because such frequencies have been of limited utility until very recently. Now that terahertz frequencies have demonstrated great potential for medical and other industrial applications, I suspect we may have to consider frequency coordination there in the future as well. I bet you never thought you’d ever see the day you might have to coordinate your heat lamp!

Shiver Me Timbers!

From a historical perspective, it’s fascinating to note that much radio law has vestiges of Admiralty Law the law of the high seas embedded in its doctrine. The fine print on the back side of my old Second Class Radiotelegraph License has some allusions to this, (though I can’t recall the precise wording without exhuming my license from the bowels of antiquity). At first, this may seem somewhat odd or even mildly repugnant to us inherently nationalistic folk, but it really makes a lot of sense. What other legal precedent did we have for something that recognized no political boundaries whatsoever? Radio, by its very nature ignores national boundaries with impunity.

The only law in human history that remotely addressed this problem was Admiralty Law. It wasn’t perfect, but it was close. In fact, laws pertinent to radio were some of the first truly successful international laws. As a radio amateur, I’m glad that most of my radio allocations match up with most DX stations’ allocations.

As much as some of us (myself included) are wont to “rag” on the FCC (and for those of us who are aware of their existence, the NTIA, as well), they both do an “admirable” job (pun intended) of herding cats. They not only have to keep us relatively happy, but they have to keep every other non-stone-age nation on the planet happy as well, as far as humanly possible.

And some of them do it so well we don’t even know they exist.


Eric P. Nichols, KL7AJ, an ARRL member, has worked as a broadcast engineer, a development engineer with the UCLA department of Plasma Physics and in telecommunications. He has also applied his radio talents to projects at the HIPAS Observatory and HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program).

Eric has written numerous articles for QST, QEX and many commercial electronics publications over the past 30 years. His upcoming book The Opus of Amateur Radio Knowledge and Lore is soon to be published.

Since 2000, Eric has made six trips to the Thailand/Myanmar border to work with the Karen Hill Tribe refugees. He has written numerous articles about the volatile situation in the region and the brave efforts of those people trying to make a difference.

Eric can be reached at PO Box 56235, North Pole, AK 99705-1235, kl7aj@arrl.net