The Agenda

Larry Downes on Spectrum Sclerosis

At CNET, Larry Downes describes the coming spectrum bottleneck and what policymakers can do about it:

How have we come so perilously close to running out of spectrum? Part of the problem has to do with the FCC’s increasingly outdated licensing system. Assignments have historically been based on transient and idiosyncratic criteria that favored once-promising new applications and technologies (e.g., UHF television, pagers, satellite radio).

This “command and control” model has resulted in a badly splintered and increasingly unmanageable allocation table of more than 50,000 localized licenses. Many of these licenses arbitrarily limit their use of spectrum to applications that have faded or disappeared, but there’s no easy mechanism for reclaiming spectrum that could be put to better use. The FCC doesn’t even have a working inventory of all its licenses.

(The federal government itself holds vast swaths of spectrum, much of it warehoused, but no central authority has the power to free up under- or unused bands.)

Moreover, the rejection of AT&T’s proposed merger with T-Mobile blocks one strategy for managing the artificial scarcity caused by what Downes calls the FCC’s “plodding and sclerotic mismanagement of the nation’s airwaves.” To manage the resulting crunch, Downes calls for, among other things,

(1) forcing local zoning authorities to move faster on cell tower modification and construction requests;

(2) eliminating various regulations, streamlining approval of spectrum transfers, etc.;

(3) and encouraging the adoption of consumer technologies that use spectrum more efficiently.

Downes concludes with a call for a broader overhaul of spectrum policy, a stance we enthusiastically endorse.

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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