Conference Report: Spectrum Hall of Shame: The Worst (and Best) Radio Policy Decisions

Tags: Spectrum Policy / Technology Policy

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The Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship held the Spectrum Hall of Shame: The Worst (and Best) Radio Policy Decisions conference on September 6, 2018. In an era of rapid technological development and spectrum scarcity, successful spectrum policy is critical. There was unanimous agreement among the conference participants that in order to effectively construct successful policy, policymakers must first understand what successful spectrum policy is.

Panelists reflected on decades of spectrum history in order to define what counts as a spectrum failure or success. For spectrum success, panelists found the following factors relevant:

  • Encouraging diverse opportunities for access to spectrum.
  • Allowing existing rightsholders and newcomers the flexibility to innovate and iterate.
  • Maximizing either “total welfare,” economic output, consumer satisfaction, deployment of telecommunications capabilities, or evolutions in wireless technology.
  • Seeking the “highest and best” use for a given spectrum allocation.

Conference speakers saw the following as hallmarks of spectrum failure:

  • Letting spectrum “sit in a closet,” or otherwise allocating in a way that promotes spectrum squatting or that disincentivizes efficient use.
  • “Hardwiring” spectrum so that it is available only to a limited set of technologies or parties.
  • Allocating spectrum so that rational markets are unable to invest in it.
  • Repeating and not learning from previous spectrum mistakes.

Having defined metrics for evaluating success and failure in spectrum policy, speakers described many examples. Among these, unlicensed spectrum and the adoption of spectrum auctions were seen as characteristic successes. Conversely, conference speakers frequently referenced the 700 MHz band plan and Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) at 5.9 GHz as case studies of spectrum failures.

Finally, speakers looked to the future, discussing what tools policymakers should use for ensuring future successes in spectrum policy. These included:

  • Bringing skillful attitudes to spectrum regulation. These attitudes include the willingness to act, to take risks, to learn from prior mistakes, and to transform past failures into future successes.
  • Approaching spectrum decisions as interdisciplinary “systems engineering problems” at the nexus of economics, physical sciences, international studies, and law.
  • Building “flexibility” into the regulatory process. This entails avoiding rigidity in allocations (“hardwiring”), encouraging spectrum allocations to accommodate a number of different technologies and a robust secondary market, and creating a healthy mix of licensed and unlicensed spectrum.
  • Promoting sharing between federal and commercial spectrum, and establishing private-public partnerships for large-scale spectrum efforts.

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