Free-market spectrum policy and the C Band

by on May 21, 2019 · 0 comments

An interesting divide has opened up in recent months among right-of-center groups about what the FCC should do with the “C Band.” A few weeks ago, the FCC requested public comment on how to proceed with the band.

The C Band is 500 MHz of spectrum that the FCC, like regulators around the globe, dedicated for satellite use years ago and gave to satellite companies to share among each other. Satellite operators typically use it to transmit cable programming to a regional cable network operations center, where it is bundled and relayed to cable subscribers. However, the C Band would work terrifically if repurposed for 5G and cellular services. As Joe Kane explained in a white paper, the FCC and telecom companies are exploring various ways of accomplishing that.

Free-market groups disagree. Should the FCC prioritize:

The quick deployment of new wireless services? Or:

Deficit reduction and limiting FCC-granted windfalls?

This is a complex question since we’re dealing with the allocation of public property. Both sides, in my view, have a defensible free-market position. There are other non-trivial C Band issues like interference protection and the FCC’s authority to act here, but I’ll address the ideological split on the right.

The case for secondary markets

The full 500 MHz of “clean” C Band in the US would be worth tens of billions to cellular companies. However, the current satellite users don’t want to part with all of it and a group of satellite companies using the spectrum estimate they could sell 200 MHz to cellular carriers if the FCC would liberalize its rules to allow flexible uses (like 5G), not merely satellite services. The satellite providers would then be able to sell much of their spectrum on the secondary market (probably to cellular providers) at a nice premium.

Prof. Dan Lyons and Roslyn Layton wrote in support of the secondary market plan on the AEI blog and at Forbes, respectively. Joe Kane also favors the approach. As they say, the benefit of secondary market sales is that it will likely lead a significant and fast repurposing of the C Band for mobile use. The consumer benefits of dezoned spectrum are large and with every year of inaction, billions of dollars of consumer welfare evaporate. Hazlett and Munoz estimate that spectrum reallocated from a restricted use to flexible use generates annual consumer benefits in the same order of magnitude as auction value of the spectrum.

I’d add that there’s a history of the FCC de-zoning spectrum (SMR spectrum in 2004, EBS spectrum in 2004, AWS-4 in 2011, WCS spectrum in 2012). The FCC is considering doing this with some government spectrum that Ligado or others could repurpose for mobile broadband. In these cases, the FCC upzoned spectrum so that it can be used for higher-valued uses, not legacy uses required by previous FCCs. The circumstances and technologies vary, but some of these bands were repurposed quickly for better uses by cellular providers and are used for 4G LTE today by tens of millions of Americans.

The case for FCC auction

Liberalizing spectrum quickly gets spectrum to higher-valued uses but does raise the complaint that the existing users are gaining an unfair windfall. I’m not sure when the C Band was allocated for satellite but many legacy assignments of spectrum were given to industries for free.

When the FCC “upzones” spectrum, it typically increases the value of the band. The “secondary market” plan is akin to the government giving away a parcel of public land to a developer to be used for a gas station, then deciding years later to upzone the land so that condo or office buildings can be built on it. It’s a better use for the land, but the gas station operator gains a big windfall when the property value increases. Not only is there a windfall, the government captures no revenue from the increase in the value of public property.

Free-market groups like Americans for Tax Reform, Taxpayers Protection Alliance, and Citizens Against Government Waste favor the FCC reclaiming the spectrum from satellite providers, perhaps via incentive auction, and collecting government revenue by re-selling it. If the FCC went the incentive auction route, the FCC would purchase the “satellite spectrum” (ie a low price) from the current C Band users, upzone it, and re-sell that spectrum as “mobile spectrum” (ie a high price) in an open auction. The FCC and the Treasury pocket the difference, probably several billion dollars here.

The FCC has only done one incentive auction, the 600 MHz auction. There, the FCC purchased “TV spectrum” from broadcasters and re-sold it to wireless carriers.

The benefit of this is deficit reduction and there’s more perceived fairness since there’s no big, FCC-granted windfall to legacy users. The downside is that it’s a slower, more complicated process since the FCC is deeply involved in the spectrum transfer. Arguably, however, the FCC should be deeply involved and interested in government revenue since spectrum is public property.

My view

A few years ago I would have definitely favored speed and the secondary market plan. I still lean towards that approach but I’m a little more on the fence after reading Richard Epstein’s work and others’ about the “public trust doctrine.” This is a traditional governance principle that requires public actors to receive fair value when disposing of public property. It prevents public institutions from giving discounted public property to friends and cronies. Clearly, cronyism isn’t the case here and FCC can’t undo what FCCs did generations ago in giving away spectrum. I think the need for speedy deployment trumps the windfall issue here, but it’s a closer call for me than in the past.

One proposal that hasn’t been contemplated with the C Band but might have merit is an overlay auction with a deadline. With such an auction, the FCC gives incumbent users a deadline to vacate a band (say, 5 years). The FCC then auctions flexible-use licenses in the band. The FCC receives the auction revenues and the winning bidders are allowed to deploy services in the “white spaces” unoccupied by the incumbents. The winning bidders are allowed to pay the incumbents to move out before the deadline.

With an overlay auction, you get fairly rapid deployment–at least in the white spaces–and the government gains revenue from the auction. This type of auction was used to deploy cellular (PCS) in the 1990s and cellular (AWS-1) in the 2000s. However, incumbents dislike it because the deadline devalues their existing spectrum holdings.

I think overlay auctions should be considered in more spectrum proceedings because they avoid the serious windfall problems while also allowing rapid deployment of new services. That doesn’t seem in the cards, however, and secondary markets seems like the next best option.

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