While people have focused on President Biden’s nominations of Jessica Rosenworcel to lead the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Gigi Sohn as an FCC commissioner, Biden also nominated Alan Davidson to head the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and there haven’t been a lot of headlines about that nomination.
However, the next head of NTIA will have a broad scope of responsibilities at a critical time in American broadband infrastructure. New Street Research policy analyst Blair Levin said, “Alan will be probably the most important NTIA administrator of all time.”
NTIA is part of the Department of Commerce, and the NTIA leader is the President’s principal adviser on telecommunications and information policy. The role is large, including spectrum management, increasing broadband availability, and overseeing internet policy.
The next head of the NTIA will come into the job with a couple of big telecom issues already on his plate.
First, he’ll be tasked with distributing $42 billion in funds from the infrastructure bill to administrators in all 50 states as well as territories and the District of Columbia.
“This is a combination of an enormous organizational challenge and something of a political one,” said Levin. The NTIA head will be overseeing huge capital allocations, similar to how service providers, themselves, are overseeing massive projects to deploy more fiber.
In addition, the NTIA leader may immediately be drawn into the dispute with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over its claims that use of C-band spectrum could cause aviation safety issues.
Levin is predicting that the White House will at least have set a process for resolving the C-band dispute by the end of the year. Assuming that Davidson gets confirmed by the Senate, the dispute could be mostly settled by the time he arrives on the job.
But if it isn’t settled, Davidson will find himself caught in a contentious battle between wireless carriers that spent billions on C-band spectrum and the FAA, which claims use of the spectrum could potentially cause plane crashes.
Davidson’s credentials are not telecom focused. He is currently a senior advisor at the Mozilla Foundation, a global nonprofit that promotes openness on the internet. He served in the Obama administration as the first director of Digital Economy at the Department of Commerce. And he started Google’s public policy office in Washington, D.C., in 2005, leading government relations there until 2012.
Asked if he thought Davidson was up to the task at NTIA, Harold Feld, SVP of the non-profit group Public Knowledge, said, “I absolutely think so. While Alan does not have a depth of background in spectrum, he did manage the Open Technology Institute and is familiar with spectrum. He’s not new to broadband, the FCC or spectrum.”
Feld noted that a lot of Davidson’s expertise is more suited to the Commerce Department’s role as representing U.S. policy abroad on tech and digital platforms. “That’s a core area of expertise, which I think is probably what initially attracted the administration to him,” said Feld.
Levin said, “If you have the 5- to 10-year view on all these issues with cybersecurity and privacy…. and you want someone to be advising the Secretary of Commerce, Alan is one of the top in the country. He knows the science and the technology.”
NTIA post has been vacant
The head job at NTIA has been filled with “Acting” leaders since David Redl left in May 2019.
“NTIA has had no politically-appointed and Senate-confirmed leader for more than two years,” said Feld.
Redl was nominated by President Trump. But around the time that Trump held a White House press event to announce that he was embracing Former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s vision of 5G, Redl resigned. Trump never nominated a successor.
Feld said the lack of a permanent leader has left the NTIA in “a fairly weak position in regard to other agencies.”
An article in the Wall Street Journal this week suggested that the recent conflict between the FCC and the FAA might have been resolved months ago if there had been Senate-confirmed leaders at the NTIA and the FCC.