Monday, February 20, 2012

One Thing Congress Can Agree On... Wireless Spectrum

Who says the spirit of bipartisanship in Washington is dead? On Thursday, both Republicans and Democrats were able to agree on auctioning off wireless spectrum.

Ho-hum, right? Not so fast. This is actually pretty important.

The way it works is that, for decades, the FCC auctions off broadcast licenses to radio and television stations. But these days, with television being transmitted principally by cable and satellite, reserving such a large swath of the wireless spectrum for television is unnecessary and grossly inefficient.

Thus, this new policy aims to reallocate spectrum away from television broadcasters (who will be compensated for voluntarily giving it up) and instead grant it to the highest bidders at auction. Most likely, these will be major players in the digital space like AT&T and Verizon, or even potential new entrants like Google. The auction is expected to raise about $25 to $30 billion for the government's coffers, helping to offset the cost of extended payroll tax cuts included in the bill.

Some other nice perks of the plan... First, part of the auction proceeds will go towards finally building a dedicated public safety network that police and fire departments have been clamoring for since 9/11. Second, new bands of unlicensed airwaves, or "whitespaces", will be created for building more expansive and robust Wi-Fi networks.

From a political perspective, President Obama and the Democrats get a job-creating program that serves the president's goal of increasing the nation's high-speed digital infrastructure (plus, of course, the payroll tax cut extension), while Republicans get what they also see as a job-creating program based on private market-based mechanisms (and, of course, a way to offset the cost of the aforementioned tax cuts).

Reading some of the comments and reactions, a lot of people are expressing concerns about the government "selling the airwaves" which are a public good. However, these concerns are missplaced. What is at auction is not ownership of the spectrum, but only licenses to use it for a limited and specified amount of time. The public still owns the airwaves; the licenses are merely switching hands from one set of corporations to another. And really, nobody thinks that leaving spectrum in the hands of television broadcasters makes any sense.

What should result from all this is: 1) better high-speed wireless broadband for consumers, 2) more robust WiFi networks, and 3) a sorely needed public safety network for emergency first-responders. Throw in a glimmer of hope on the bipartisanship front and you almost have to wonder how members of Congress made this one look so easy.


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