Senate Commerce Committee Spectrum Hearing

The Senate Commerce Committee’s Wednesday hearing on spectrum policy highlighted key issues and brought out some workable solutions to the spectrum crunch. In order to advance from 4G to 5G mobile broadband we need more spectrum, there’s just no dancing around it. Some of this spectrum will come from millimeter wave bands – above 40 GHz – but we also need more spectrum in the battery-friendly lower bands. The obvious place to get this spectrum is from government agencies who hold 60 – 70% of low-band spectrum (below 3 GHz) and don’t use it intensively. There are three ways to do this, but only one has a prayer of working. Here are the options:

  • Create financial incentives for agencies to relinquish spectrum, such as a “synthetic currency” the agency can convert to cash for operations if it relinquishes spectrum it doesn’t actually need; alternatively, hold an incentive auction for government agencies where they can get real cash for giving up spectrum.
  • Create financial incentives for private sector actors to develop the means for agencies to use spectrum more efficiently, with the no-longer-needed spectrum going into an auction.
  • Take the spectrum away from the agencies by legislative action and put it in the hands of an independent authority who has incentives to put the spectrum into the hands of the public and the firms that serve the public.

The alternative to taking unneeded spectrum away from government agencies is the weak “sharing” regime proposed by the political players who directed the White House’s PCAST spectrum committee. This regime simply allows the agencies to continue their wasteful ways whenever they want to use spectrum, but would allow public use the rest of the time. This is essentially a band-aid that doesn’t address the fundamental problem: agencies don’t replace old radios when they become obsolete the way most spectrum users do. We upgrade our Wi-Fi routers on a regular basis to make use of better radios in our phones and laptops. If government used Wi-Fi, it would depend on something like grandma’s 802.11b router.

Two witnesses made especially good observations, Blair Levin (testimony here) and Tom Lenard (testimony here). Lenard has been proposing a GSA-like agency to monetize government spectrum use for a long time, and Levin pointed out that government does not have private-sector-like financial incentives by design. Agencies ask for the budget they need to do their jobs, and Congress pretty much goes along. If an activity isn’t funded, it isn’t done. So you really have to take spectrum from agencies by law, not by economics.

Pierre de Vries was the closest thing to an engineer in the group – he has a Ph.D. in physics – but he had to deliver a policy message given the audience; his testimony emphasized disputes over spectrum rights.

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