Radio Frequency Spectrum Management

Definition: Radio Frequency Spectrum Management is the analytical, procedural, and policy approach to planning and managing the use of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Keywords: harmful interference, policies and procedures, radio frequencies, radio frequency interference analysis, radio spectrum, system acquisition

MITRE SE Roles and Expectations: MITRE systems engineers (SEs) are expected to understand the role that radio frequency spectrum management has in the system acquisition processes of our customers. SEs need to be able to advise sponsors and their contractors, where appropriate, on the processes, procedures, policies, and analytical measures needed to identify, acquire, and retain radio frequencies for use by government communications, navigation, and surveillance systems.


MITRE's sponsors are becoming increasingly dependent on wireless communications, navigation, and surveillance systems in order to support a broad variety of operational missions in air traffic control, national defense, and homeland security. The single most critical asset that any wireless system must acquire is the radio frequency (RF) spectrum in which to operate. Nearly everywhere in the world, unallocated radio spectrum has become scarce and, as a result, its commercial value has increased dramatically. In the resulting intense competition for a limited resource, private companies have been winning the "war of words" associated with this asset. This makes it increasingly difficult for government agencies to acquire spectrum for new systems and even to keep the frequencies they have been using for years.

MITRE SEs are being called on to advise government system developers, operational units, and policy organizations on how best to plan for, acquire, use, and retain radio frequencies. It is essential for MITRE staff involved in systems that depend on RF emissions to have a working knowledge of this somewhat complex field and to be able to get help from MITRE experts when needed.

Government Interest and Use

All useful regions of the radio frequency spectrum (9 kHz–300 GHz) are regulated. Worldwide, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an entity within the United Nations, maintains a Table of Allocations to which most countries adhere, to a large extent [1]. The ITU has divided the world into three regions, each often having different radio rules and allocations. Each nation also has internal spectrum regulators who manage what is universally considered to be a sovereign asset within their own borders. Generally a Ministry of Telecommunications or similar organization fills this role.

The ITU is the venue in which deliberations are held to accommodate new types of telecommunications functions. World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRCs) are held every three or four years to consider changes to the Table of Allocations. Because this process takes several years to complete, spectrum for any new function (e.g., when satellites were first introduced in significant numbers in the 1970s) has to be planned for many years in advance.

In the United States, the authority to regulate spectrum use is split between two agencies: the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) [2] and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) [3]. The operating rules of these agencies are extensive and are codified into law within Title 47 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations [4].

NTIA is responsible for spectrum matters that involve federal government users in all three branches of the government. For a new system, the procuring federal government agency must provide the system's technical characteristics and demonstrate to the satisfaction of NTIA that the system neither causes nor receives harmful interference to or from other authorized users when placed in its intended operational environment. Once this is accomplished, NTIA issues a Certificate of Spectrum Support, which identifies the frequency band in which the agency can operate and bounds the technical parameters that the system can have. NTIA then issues a frequency authorization allowing the user to operate a system on a specific frequency or frequencies at a particular location or within a defined area. Once a system is fielded, a multitude of radio frequency analysis and spectrum management tools are available to plan for and identify frequency assignments. Ultimate authority, however, to use a frequency must come through an NTIA frequency authorization or through delegated authority, which is provided by NTIA to specified federal government agencies for certain bands.

The FCC is responsible for the spectrum matters of private users as well as state and local government users. The FCC first issues a Type Acceptance for new non-government systems, identifying the authorized frequency band and parameter set. For most systems, the FCC then issues a radio license that grants a user the right to use a particular frequency or range of frequencies at a given site.

It is worth noting that this bifurcated approval process can both complicate and protract the system acquisition process for MITRE's government sponsors. For example, to develop and test a spectrum-dependent system, a private sector vendor must follow the FCC's rules for doing so—even if the eventual end user is a government agency. The acquiring government agency must then go to NTIA to obtain the necessary approvals to use the system in an operational environment.

Best Practices and Lessons Learned

Know the spectrum policy landscape (part 1). The management—and very often even the technical staff—of most government system acquisition programs is not acquainted with the requirements, policies, and procedures associated with the identification, acquisition, and retention of adequate radio spectrum resources for their systems.

Know the spectrum policy landscape (part 2). MITRE SEs involved with spectrum-dependent systems should have at least a rudimentary understanding of domestic (NTIA and FCC rules) and international spectrum regulations and policy. MITRE SEs supporting the Department of Defense (DoD) should additionally be familiar with DoD Instruction (DODI) 4650.01, "Policy and Procedures for Management and Use of the Electromagnetic Spectrum" [5].

Know the planning horizon (part 1). The time required to obtain spectrum for a new type of system is measured in years. Typically it takes six to ten years to get new spectrum to the point where systems can actually use it. The Office of Management and Budget requires that federal government agencies obtain an NTIA Certificate of Spectrum Support before submitting budget requests for "the development or procurement of major communications-electronics systems (including all systems employing space satellite techniques)." It is thus vitally important to initiate the processes to obtain spectrum for new system programs as soon as possible.

Know the planning horizon (part 2). Even if a new system does not represent a new radio service (e.g., a communication, navigation, or surveillance), it can take more than a year to obtain the approvals to use existing spectrum.

Dual approvals needed. Government contractors must follow FCC rules [3] for spectrum use during their design, test, and acceptance phases. The acquiring agency must then get a separate (NTIA) approval to use the system on government frequencies.

Know the competition. Competition for radio spectrum has intensified in recent years, particularly in bands that are optimal for mobile systems (approximately 200 MHz – 4 GHz). This factor has had a dramatic impact on the perceived (and actual) value of spectrum and has biased decisions for spectrum re-allocation heavily in favor of the private sector.

Importance of justification. Government agencies must develop compelling, operationally based justifications for both the acquisition of new spectrum and the retention of spectrum they already have. Failure to do so will cause spectrum to be lost to commercial interests with the resulting harmful impact on the mission of the federal government.

Design and architecture implications. Government agencies typically operate systems over long life cycles (e.g., 15–30 years or more). With growing scarcity of unused spectrum and rapid changes in technology, system designs should consider wider tuning ranges and modular architectures that facilitate upgrading over the life cycle. Such considerations are especially important for systems to be operated overseas in order to maximize the likelihood that the applicable host nation(s) will authorize such equipment to operate.

Leverage the corporation's expertise. MITRE has a strong capability in spectrum management that can be brought to the aid of SEs who are working with spectrum-dependent systems. As one entry point into the MITRE spectrum community, Dr. Chris Hegarty currently serves as MITRE's corporate focal point for spectrum [6].

Share your information. MITRE SEs should inform the corporate focal point for spectrum, in addition to their own management chain, of any spectrum-related issues that involve more than one of our sponsors [6].

References and Resources

  1. International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Radio Regulations.
  2. National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) Manual of Regulations and Procedures for Federal Radio Frequency Management (Redbook).
  3. Federal Communications Commission, FCC Rulemaking.
  4. U.S. Government Printing Office, Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, Title 47: Telecommunication.
  5. Department of Defense, DoD Instruction 4650.01, January 9, 2009, Policy and Procedures for Management and Use of the Electromagnetic Spectrum.
  6. Through an on-going, corporately funded initiative, MITRE has developed and maintains a spectrum management web collection intended to provide MITRE staff with a basic overview of spectrum management. Links are provided to domestic and international regulatory documents and websites. The site also includes a listing of MITRE documents related to spectrum management, points of contact within MITRE's staff, and directions for joining the MITRE spectrum shared user distribution list (which currently has 90 members).


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