How Can Congress Accommodate Both Federal and Commercial Spectrum Demand?

by on June 27, 2013 · 5 comments

“Permitting voluntary spectrum transactions between federal and commercial users would harness the power of market forces to put both commercial and federal spectrum to its highest and best uses.”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology is holding a hearing today to ask, “How can Congress meet the needs of Federal agencies while addressing carriers’ spiraling demand for spectrum in the age of the data-intensive smartphone?” In my view, the answer requires a flexible approach that permits experimentation among multiple approaches.

There are challenges and opportunities for both (1) clearing and reallocating federal spectrum for commercial use and (2) sharing spectrum among federal and commercial users. Economic and technical issues may require different strategies for different spectrum bands and different uses. Experience indicates that voluntary negotiations among interested parties – not bureaucratic fiat – are likely to produce the most efficient strategy in any particular instance. Unfortunately, current law does not provide market incentives or mechanisms for the relevant parties (federal and commercial spectrum users and spectrum regulators) to achieve efficient outcomes.

Congressional action creating markets for spectrum transactions between federal and commercial users would provide the relevant parties with an opportunity to maximize their spectrum use through voluntary negotiation. A market-oriented approach would permit experimentation, encourage innovation, and promote investment while increasing the efficiency of spectrum use. The result would benefit consumers, federal agencies, and the economy.

Federal users lack incentives to relinquish or share spectrum with commercial users

The law requires the NTIA and FCC to jointly plan spectrum allocations to accommodate all users and promote the efficient use of the spectrum. Although the agencies have agreed to share spectrum when the potential for harmful interference is low, the NTIA typically does not voluntarily agree to repurpose federal spectrum for exclusive commercial use. That typically requires a Presidential memorandum, Congressional legislation, or both.

The reason: NTIA and its constituent federal spectrum users have no incentive to voluntarily relinquish federal spectrum rights.

First, government agencies generally cannot profit from relinquishing their spectrum (i.e., they are not subject to the opportunity costs applicable in commercial markets). They are entitled to reimbursement for the costs of relocating their wireless systems after a commercial spectrum auction, but the majority of auction proceeds are remitted to the general Treasury.

Second, government agencies face an uncertain funding environment (i.e., they cannot raise capital in commercial markets). Agencies often reserve federal spectrum allocations for planned wireless systems that are unfunded, which can result in federal spectrum lying fallow for years. An agency that reserves spectrum for a planned system can remain optimistic that it will receive funding in the next budget cycle. But, if the agency relinquishes its spectrum, it cannot build the planned system even if it does receive funding.

The lack of potential benefits and the funding uncertainty inherent in the government budgeting process combine to create an environment in which federal agencies have low opportunity costs for reserving spectrum and high opportunity costs for relinquishing it. Creating market mechanisms that reverse these opportunity costs would provide government agencies with incentives to voluntarily relinquish or share their spectrum in ways that promote overall spectrum efficiency.

Federal users lack incentives to share spectrum with other federal users

The lack of incentives for efficient use of federal spectrum extends to intra-agency sharing as well.

There are approximately eighty different federal entities that are authorized to use federal spectrum. It would be more efficient for multiple agencies to share spectrum and systems in certain bands, but the lack of market incentives combined with jurisdictional issues make it difficult for them to work together. For example, DOJ, DHS, and DOT tried to build a shared wireless network for voice communications, but, “despite costing over $356 million over 10 years,” the project failed to achieve the results intended.

Market mechanisms that permit federal agencies to profit from their spectrum could eliminate the funding issues and alleviate the “turf wars” that plague intra-agency projects.

Potential mechanisms for repurposing federal spectrum

The current proposals for repurposing federal spectrum fall into three general categories.

One option is to create a GSA-like agency for federal spectrum users. This would provide an incentive for efficient use of federal spectrum by imposing an opportunity cost for inefficiency (in the form of rents paid by federal spectrum users to the new agency), but it would not improve funding mechanisms for federal wireless systems.

Another option is the sharing-only approach proposed by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). This approach could provide commercial users with additional access to federal spectrum, but it would not alter federal incentives or funding and lacks the degree of certainty that is typically necessary for substantial commercial investment.

The third option would permit federal spectrum users to sell or lease their spectrum rights and use the funds to build new systems or secure usage rights on commercial systems. This could be accomplished through the use of incentive auctions in some circumstances, though individually negotiated transactions between federal and commercial users would provide significantly more flexibility. This alternative would tend to reverse (by merging) the incentives discussed above: Federal users would face higher opportunity costs for reserving spectrum and lower opportunity costs for relinquishing it.

The third option also has the advantage of permitting multiple approaches to the issue of apportioning spectrum for federal and commercial uses. I expect that, even if government agencies were permitted to engage in secondary market transactions with commercial spectrum users, they would still prefer sharing on a non-interference basis in bands with unique requirements, which would accommodate additional spectrum for unlicensed uses. If it appeared that federal users still lacked sufficient incentives to improve the efficiency of their spectrum use, Congress would retain the option of creating a GSA-like agency to charge rents to federal spectrum users.

Permitting voluntary spectrum transactions between federal and commercial users would harness the power of market forces to put both commercial and federal spectrum to its highest and best uses. As FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel noted recently, “our federal spectrum policy needs to be built on carrots, not sticks.” Giving federal spectrum users an opportunity to negotiate a share in the benefits of repurposing federal spectrum would be a carrot worth pursuing.

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