How the FCC Killed a Nationwide Wireless Broadband Network

by on January 9, 2015 · 8 comments

Many readers will recall the telecom soap opera featuring the GPS industry and LightSquared and the subsequent bankruptcy of LightSquared. Economist Thomas W. Hazlett (who is now at Clemson, after a long tenure at the GMU School of Law) and I wrote an article published in the Duke Law & Technology Review titled Tragedy of the Regulatory Commons: Lightsquared and the Missing Spectrum Rights. The piece documents LightSquared’s ambitions and dramatic collapse. Contrary to popular reporting on this story, this was not a failure of technology. We make the case that, instead, the FCC’s method of rights assignment led to the demise of LightSquared and deprived American consumers of a new nationwide wireless network. Our analysis has important implications as the FCC and Congress seek to make wide swaths of spectrum available for unlicensed devices. Namely, our paper suggests that the top-down administrative planning model is increasingly harming consumers and delaying new technologies.

Read commentary from the GPS community about LightSquared and you’ll get the impression LightSquared is run by rapacious financiers (namely CEO Phil Falcone) who were willing to flaunt FCC rules and endanger thousands of American lives with their proposed LTE network. LightSquared filings, on the other hand, paint the GPS community as defense-backed dinosaurs who abused the political process to protect their deficient devices from an innovative entrant. As is often the case, it’s more complicated than these morality plays. We don’t find villains in this tale–simply destructive rent-seeking triggered by poor FCC spectrum policy.

We avoid assigning fault to either LightSquared or GPS, but we stipulate that there were serious interference problems between LightSquared’s network and GPS devices. Interference is not an intractable problem, however. Interference is resolved everyday in other circumstances. The problem here was intractable because GPS users are dispersed and unlicensed (including government users), and could not coordinate and bargain with LightSquared when problems arose. There is no feasible way for GPS companies to track down and compel users to use more efficient devices, for instance, if LightSquared compensated them for the hassle. Knowing that GPS mitigation was unfeasible, LightSquared’s only recourse after GPS users objected to the new LTE network was through the political and regulatory process, a fight LightSquared lost badly. The biggest losers, however, were consumers, who were deprived of another wireless broadband network because FCC spectrum assignment prevented win-win bargaining between licensees.

Our paper provides critical background to this dispute. Around 2004, because satellite phone spectrum was underused, the FCC permitted satellite phone licensees flexibility to repurpose some of their spectrum for use in traditional cellular phone networks. (Many people are appalled to learn that spectrum policy still largely resembles Soviet-style command-and-control. The FCC tells the wireless industry, essentially: “You can operate satellite phones only in band X. You can operate satellite TV in band Y. You can operate broadcast TV in band Z.” and assigns spectrum to industry players accordingly.) Seeing this underused satellite phone spectrum, LightSquared acquired some of this flexible satellite spectrum so that LightSquared could deploy a nationwide cellular phone network in competition with Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility. LightSquared had spent $4 billion in developing its network and reportedly had plans to spend $10 billion more when things ground to a halt.

In early 2012, the Department of Commerce objected to LightSquared’s network on the grounds that the network would interfere with GPS units (including, reportedly, DOD and FAA instruments). Immediately, the FCC suspended LightSquared’s authorization to deploy a cellular network and backtracked on the 2004 rules permitting cellular phones in that band. Three months later, LightSquared declared bankruptcy. This was a non-market failure, not a market failure. This regulatory failure obtains because virtually any interference to existing wireless operations is prohibited even if the social benefits of a new wireless network are vast.

This analysis is not simply scholarly theory about the nature of regulation and property rights. We provide real-world evidence that supports our notion that, had the FCC assigned flexible, de facto property rights to GPS licensees like the FCC does in some other bands, rather than fragmented unlicensed users, LightSquared might be in operation today serving millions with wireless broadband. Our evidence comes, in fact, from LightSquared’s deals with non-GPS parties. Namely, LightSquared had interference problems with another satellite licensee on adjacent spectrum–Inmarsat.

Inmarsat provides public safety, aviation, and national security applications and hundreds of thousands of devices to government and commercial users. The LightSquared-Inmarsat interference problems were unavoidable but because Inmarsat had de facto property rights to its spectrum, it could internalize financial gains and coordinate with LightSquared. The result was classic Coasian bargaining. The two companies swapped spectrum and activated an agreement in 2010 in which LightSquared would pay Inmarsat over $300 million. Flush with cash and spectrum, Inmarsat could rationalize its spectrum and replace devices that wouldn’t play nicely with LightSquared LTE operations.

These trades avoided the non-market failure the FCC produced by giving GPS users fragmented, non-exclusive property rights. When de facto property rights are assigned to licensees, contentious spectrum border disputes typically give way to private ordering. The result is regular spectrum swaps and sales between competitors. Wireless licensees like Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile deal with local interference and unauthorized operations daily because they have enforceable, exclusive rights to their spectrum. The FCC, unfortunately, never assigned these kinds of spectrum rights to the GPS industry.

The evaporation of billions of dollars of LightSquared funds was a non-market failure, not a market failure and not a technology failure. The economic loss to consumers was even greater than LightSquared’s. Different FCC rules could have permitted welfare-enhancing coordination between LightSquared and GPS. The FCC’s error was the nature of rights the agency assigned for GPS use. By authorizing the use of millions of unlicensed devices adjacent to LightSquared’s spectrum, the FCC virtually ensured that future attempts to reallocate spectrum in these bands would prove contentious. Going forward, the FCC should think far less about which technologies they want to promote and more about the nature of spectrum rights assigned. For tech entrepreneurs and policy entrepreneurs to create innovative new wireless products, they need well-functioning spectrum markets. The GPS experience shows vividly what to avoid.

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