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Too Much Government, Too Little Spectrum

When conservatives complain about the federal government, we all know the usual litany. The government spends too much, taxes too much, borrows too much, and regulates too much. But there is another “too much” most people don’t even know about: The federal government controls too much spectrum.

Why is this important? Well, when you make a call on your cellphone, you’re using spectrum. When you listen to the radio or watch broadcast television, you’re using spectrum. And when you surf the Internet, send a text, download an app, watch a movie, or play a game on your smartphone or tablet, you’re using spectrum. Put simply, our daily lives are ever more dependent on the airwaves over which communications signals travel.

But guess who controls a majority of the best spectrum, the spectrum most suitable for mobile broadband? It’s the federal government itself. Almost 60 percent of that spectrum is in federal hands, primarily used by federal agencies for their own purposes.

Without a doubt, the federal government has legitimate needs for spectrum. The Department of Defense, for example, uses spectrum for radars. But it probably won’t surprise you to hear that the federal government doesn’t use much of the spectrum that it controls efficiently. Indeed, just last year, the Government Accountability Office reported that federal agencies do not focus on ensuring the best use of spectrum and need not justify their spectrum needs.

Without any market or policy incentives to be “spectrally efficient,” as we say in the business, it’s not a surprise that these agencies aren’t as nimble and innovative as is the private sector. It is unacceptable that about 60 federal agencies control more spectrum than is available to the hundreds of millions of Americans with wireless devices. As is the case in many other areas, the federal government can and should make do with less.

This is important as a matter of principle; everyone should agree that the federal government should not unnecessarily divert resources from the private sector. But there’s a practical imperative, too. When commercial providers don’t have access to enough spectrum, networks become clogged; that, in turn, leads to slow connections and dropped calls. And congestion will only become worse as Americans increasingly use smartphones and tablets for data-intensive applications like video. Wireless carriers are trying to squeeze more out of the limited supply they have, but the realities of the R&D process and the laws of physics only allow them to do so much. Eventually, they’ll have to limit the services they offer, charge more for them, or both.

For these reasons, I believe that a substantial amount of spectrum needs to be transferred from the federal government to the private sector. The federal government needs to let some spectrum go.

Until recently, things were headed in the right direction.

Six years ago, federal agencies cleared a big chunk of federal spectrum—90 MHz—for commercial use. How valuable was that spectrum in the private market? Well, auctioning that spectrum raised over $13 billion for the federal treasury. And what happened to the federal users? With their costs covered by a small portion of that $13 billion, they were able to move to different frequencies and replace their older legacy systems with modern technology.

There’s no doubt that American consumers are benefiting from this cleared spectrum. That 90 MHz today is being used by wireless carriers to provide 4G broadband service across the country.

But now we’re stuck. In the last four years, the federal government has not relinquished any spectrum for commercial use. Even worse, some in Washington, DC have all but given up on putting more federal spectrum in private hands.

The latest fad in spectrum policy sounds simple and appealing: Don’t clear, just “share.” Instead of moving spectrum from the federal government to the private sector, have government users and commercial users share it. That’s the approach recommended by a recent report of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, among others.
Now, I realize that we are taught from a young age that sharing is a good thing. But what makes sense in the sandbox doesn’t necessarily work for spectrum.

To illustrate why, think about buying some government land to build a house. Under option A, the government gives up property and sells it to you outright. Under option B, the government allows you to share its property and reserves the right to occupy your house whenever it decides it needs to use it. Under which scenario would you be more likely to buy the land, build the house, and use it productively? Obviously, option A. Option B—the sharing route—isn’t likely to make anyone happy. This is the situation with federal spectrum. A private company is going to be much less likely to take the risks necessary to develop a piece of spectrum if the government can preempt its use of it at certain times or places.

In short, clearing federal spectrum and letting the private sector put it to good use should be our goal. That’s the path most likely to lead to the kinds of investments, economic growth, and American jobs that have resulted from past efforts.

It won’t be easy; cutting the size of government never is. But just as we have to keep trying to cut government spending and to ease the burden of federal regulations, we also have to stay focused on making more of the airwaves accessible to the American people. Now’s not the time to wave the white flag on the issue of federal spectrum.

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