September 13, 2017

Spectrum Is the next Frontier for Infrastructure

Brent Skorup

Senior Research Fellow

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.