|Frank Wright, Ph.D.
President & CEO
Take back the TV broadcast spectrum! Prior to the release of the FCC’s broadband wireless report, that was one of the ideas floated – take back TV broadcast spectrum to expand wireless broadband services.
As you might imagine, that idea received a chilly reception from TV broadcasters. As one put it: “Let’s see, we get to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a government-mandated conversion from analog to digital broadcasting, and now they want the spectrum back. Who is in charge over there?”
When I later visited the FCC commissioners, naturally this subject came up. Most commissioners insisted that any spectrum “reclamation” would be voluntary not mandatory. But left unsaid was what would happen if not enough spectrum was remitted voluntarily.
Which raises a threshold question. How much spectrum is needed for future broadband wireless services? Short answer: nobody knows. This is fundamentally an empirical question, without any comprehensive research available to answer it.
Which is why during my recent visits with the FCC commissioners, I made a modest proposal: Give the TV spectrum to the broadcasters currently occupying it. That’s right, give it to them. Grant each broadcaster a 100% equity interest in the spectrum they occupy.
Now before you go all wobbly about the idea of “giving away” the public airwaves, let me say two things. First, broadcasters have invested billions of dollars over many years in order to use this spectrum. Those investments have created hundreds of thousands of jobs and have served a vital public interest in providing free over-the-air television services to millions of Americans. In other words, the spectrum has never really been “free.”
But second, and more importantly, granting this equity ownership is the solution to the allocation of sufficient spectrum for future broadband wireless services. Simply put, the marketplace will solve the spectrum allocation question, by putting a market price on that spectrum and allowing broadband wireless providers to bid for that spectrum – as needed.
And that last point (as needed) is the key. You don’t need to estimate the unknown future demand for wireless spectrum – the marketplace will do it. The free market always allows resources to flow to their highest and best use. If more wireless spectrum is needed than currently available, wireless providers will bid up the price to the point where some TV broadcasters will sell. Conversely, if a TV broadcaster cannot maximize the value of their broadcast spectrum, they will put it on the market for purchase by someone who can.
Granted, it is a modest proposal without a lot of detail. But the marketplace works every day in solving millions of supply and demand questions like this. It will work here as well.