The Art of Spectrum Lobbying

Subtitled ” America’s $480 Billion Spectrum Giveaway, How it Happened, and How to Prevent it from Recurring,” this recent report is from the New America Foundation, by J. H. Snider. The actual amount of the giveaway can be subject to some dispute, but it’s clearly a lot of value.

After describing the method and the limitations of the value estimates, the report outlines some specific strategies used by those who hold, or wish to obtain, licenses for use of some portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, at minimal or no cost.

For instance, when a cellphone provider sells its customers crippled phones, usable only on that one provider’s frequencies, it’s engaging in the “Asset Specificity Strategy.”(If the FCC tries to take a frequency away, the provider will claim that would be unfair to the customers whose phones it crippled.)

Then there’s the “Pollution Strategy,” whereby broadcasters insist that frequencies adjacent to their licensed channels must be kept empty to avoid interference. Theythen announce that they can solve the problem of interference, but only if they’re granted licenses for the space freed.

My favorite analysis is of the “Go-Slow Strategy.” By seeking new spectrum rights in small pieces over time, no individual request raises much opposition. Furthermore,”This go-slow approach also works to the advantage of spectrum lobbyists who want to keep their jobs and would lose them if they succeeded in getting a giveaway all at once…”

A total of 18 lobbying strategies (not counting the “two-wrongs-make-a-right” substrategy) are described, followed by ten examples of their application.

To end the giveaway, Snider then provides 15 recommendations in two broad categories: better information, and restructuring to reduce licenseholders’ economic power.

I don’t think a Georgist would find anything to object to in this paper. The spectrum is in some ways much like land, but in other ways quite different. Recommendations to make the spectrum, its use, and its value more visible are clearly in order. And whereas landholders need to have security of tenure in exchange for paying rent, the use of shorter license terms and open auctions will probably work well for spectrum because there is no technological reason why licensees cannot cheaply move from one channel to another.

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