In the aftermath of a natural disaster, policymakers often turn their attention to the state of the nation’s physical infrastructure. This no longer means strictly physical infrastructure, as broadband infrastructure is increasingly entering Congress’ discussions. Policymakers should remember that broadband companies don’t need vast, new subsidies — they mostly need forward-thinking regulators and invisible infrastructure: radio spectrum.
Wireless broadband, in particular, should boom in the next decade as carriers embark on building hundreds of thousands of “small cells” across the nation in order to lay the groundwork for 5G (fifth generation) technology. Cable operators large and small, likewise, are upgrading their networks to high-speed fiber optic lines. Streaming TV, teleconferencing, drones, driverless cars, and augmented reality will all benefit from more bandwidth and competition.
It’s refreshing to see this administration and a Federal Communications Commission (FCC), led by its new chairman Ajit Pai, redirect its attentions to broadband infrastructure in the past few months. Commissioners and top officials at our communications regulator have been distracted by “net neutrality” for nearly a decade.
This obscure Internet issue was invented by law professors, has no meaningful effect on the average person despite the ink spilled over it, and in 2015 gave the FCC the pretext it needed to regulate the Internet. Fortunately, the new FCC is looking to restore light-touch regulation of the Internet and focus instead on wiring the country. The formation of the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, of which I am a member, and new proceedings exploring how to increase broadband coverage are good first steps.
More can be done by the FCC, other agencies, Congress, and the White House, however.
Spectrum policy, in particular, needs reform. Spectrum is a resource that allows smartphones, radio broadcast towers, Wi-Fi routers, and other devices to transmit audio, video and data wirelessly. Radio spectrum, like real estate, can be divided, bought, sold, traded and leased. Ever since Congress authorized spectrum auctions in the 1990s, consumer demand for wireless technologies and services has been insatiable.
There is an artificial shortage, however. Today, federal agencies possess over half of the valuable “beachfront spectrum” that transmits wireless signals well. Agencies need spectrum, but because they don’t pay market rates for it, agency demand is distorted. Slowly, this federal spectrum is being released to commercial markets. In 2015, 25 MHz of federal spectrum was transferred to the FCC and sold for about $20 billion. Since the federal government currently possesses and uses about 2,000 MHz, there’s significantly more economic value to be unlocked.
Simply prioritizing spectrum policy at agencies would help. Every administration offers Presidential awards for federal employees who improve government operations. The Presidential Management Improvement award, for instance, is an annual award to individuals or small teams whose contributions result in verifiable savings to the government of $250,000 or more. These types of awards range from recognition to paid time off to five-figure bonuses.
The White House should actively seek out federal spectrum managers and encourage their nominations. Identifying them is a challenge, but they should be rewarded for using their local knowledge to consolidate government spectrum and relinquish some for commercial use.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has identified another problem with federal spectrum: Under current law, agencies can’t sell spectrum and keep any of the proceeds. Losing spectrum and buying new systems is mostly pain, little gain. In the past, Congress has allowed agencies to lease and sell real estate, and it seems to encourage the sale of underutilized federal property. Congress should consider allowing the sale and lease of underused federal spectrum.
Finally, new and existing broadband providers need inexpensive access to state and local property, like utility poles and underground conduit, and expedited approval processes. The 2015 FAST Act, a transportation bill, added provisions that allow states to be reimbursed by the federal Highway Trust Fund for building “intelligent transportation system” (ITS) infrastructure. ITS includes roadside poles and conduit that someday could be used for vehicle-to-infrastructure wireless technologies. Those systems are years away, but states in the meantime could build the “dumb” infrastructure and lease it out at low rates to broadband providers.
The United States is a global leader in Internet technology and broadband connections, but the advances have not spread evenly across the nation. Spectrum shortages and local delays are hidden costs that increase every household’s broadband bill. To induce broadband buildout and upgrades, federal lawmakers should scrutinize the use and sale of agency spectrum. State, county, and local officials should seek to eliminate the paperwork burdens associated with network upgrades. Free enterprise and American innovators will do the rest.
• Brent Skorup is a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. His views are not necessarily those of the Mercatus Center or the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee.