Good Spectrum News from the Obama Administration

by on June 29, 2010 · 2 comments

National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers made a major policy speech yesterday at the New America Foundation, announcing the adminstration’s plan to find an additional 500 megaherz of spectrum for wireless broadband service by the end of the decade. The spectrum will come from two places: federal agencies who currently under-utilize their spectrum, and commercial users who volunteer to participate in “incentive auctions.”

In an incentive auction, the current spectrum user receives part of the proceeds in exchange for making the spectrum available for reallocation. Within the current US system of spectrum allocation, it’s about as close as we can come to allowing spectrum holders to sell their spectrum licenses to someone else who can put the spectrum to a more valuable use. 

Summers even mentioned broadcasters specifically, noting that a local television station with a few hundred millions of dollars of revenue may currently control spectrum worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Federal agencies would get to use some of the proceeds to adopt “state-of-the-art communications.” Presumably this would include new equipment that doesn’t use so much spectrum.

In his speech, Summers gave appropriate credit to the Federal Communications Commission, which surfaced many of these ideas in its National Broadband Plan. Even more appropriately, the former Harvard University president and academic economist assigned proper credit for the original source of the idea: 

Most of the freed-up spectrum will be auctioned off for use by mobile broadband providers. As the great law and economics scholar Ronald Coase originally pointed out, auctions ensure that spectrum is devoted to its most productive uses because it is determined by investors’ willingness to pay for it.

There are, of course, a few unanswered questions. How much of the spectrum will actually get auctioned for mobile broadband, rather than reserved for unlicensed use? Will the buyers have to use the spectrum for mobile broadband, or will the license be sufficiently broad that they could use it for other forms of personal communication that perhaps haven’t even been invented yet? Do we really have to wait ten years for this? Will the Ronald Coase Institute get any royalties for the government’s use of its namesake’s intellectual property? (Academics will recognize the joke in the last question.)

For now I’ll just say, “Bravo, Dr. Summers!”

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