If you look at how our radio spectrum is allocated
today, you discover that TV broadcasters have a huge chunk of spectrum (that chart doesn't directly display how much spectrum is actually included -- I remember seeing another chart, which I can't find now, that shows proportionally how much more spectrum broadcasters have). This was given to them -- entirely for free -- years ago, when spectrum wasn't used for much. These days, however, spectrum is precious for so many different things, and certainly much of it could be put to better use. Of course, the broadcasters aren't thrilled with giving up any of their windfall. For years, they dragged their feet, kicking and screaming, about switching from analog to digital broadcasting, which was needed to reclaim some spectrum. More recently, they've been fighting attempts to use "white space" spectrum -- which is spectrum that's unused, but close to used spectrum. The broadcasters insist there will be interference, while technologists insist the technology is good enough to block interference.
So, it's interesting that, just as we're hearing of the first tests of white space networks
, the FCC is also talking to broadcasters about other ways to reclaim some spectrum
and put it to use on something more useful and productive. Apparently, the plan on the table right now would be for broadcasters to give up the spectrum in return for a cut of the revenue the government would get in auctioning off the spectrum for wireless use. Of course, some may find it distasteful that public spectrum
that was given to these companies for free can then get sold off with at least some of the money going to those who never bought or truly "owned" the spectrum in the first place. But, given that the FCC set things up in a way where it basically created a de facto ownership structure of the spectrum, it's difficult to see any reasonable way to get that spectrum back without paying for it.
In the link above, Adam Thierer suggests we just give the current holders property rights in the spectrum, and assume that they'll then sell it off to those who can do something more innovative with it (or change and do something more innovative themselves). I've long been a proponent
of giving up the ridiculous idea of having the government decide how each slice of spectrum must be used. Why not let the companies who control the various slices of spectrum make use of it as they see fit? It seems more likely that we'd get more efficient uses of the spectrum. So, it's good to see more thinking about ways to put some of that spectrum to better use, but it would be nice if we allowed the market, rather than the government, to figure out how to best use it.