Policymakers in Washington agree that more airwaves should be made available for wireless services, but they clash over some important details — for example, how to make the most efficient use of the prime airwaves occupied by TV broadcasters. There’s also a philosophical split over whether to set aside some of these additional airwaves for unlicensed uses, rather than selling them all to the highest bidders. Lawmakers should heed the lessons of history on that front. The experience with wi-fi shows that making spectrum available for wireless spurs innovation and broad public benefits, although it’s impossible to predict what that innovation will look like or what those benefits will be.
The demand for spectrum is being driven by the phenomenal popularity of smartphones and mobile applications. The Federal Communications Commission has called on Congress to free up more frequencies by offering television broadcasters this deal: If they give up at least part of their channels’ airwaves, which they use for free, they’ll receive a portion of the proceeds when those frequencies are auctioned. Such incentive auctions could clear a considerable amount of spectrum for mobile wireless uses.
The advantage to auctions is that they take politics and favoritism by the commission out of the equation. They’re also brutally efficient, favoring uses that the public is willing to pay for over those that are purely speculative. But they’re a poor way to judge the value of unlicensed spectrum. That’s because the best use of those airwaves isn’t likely to emerge for years, so it can’t be quantified today.
The goal of reclaiming spectrum shouldn’t be just to amass the largest possible amount of cash for the Treasury. It should be to advance the public interest, including its real but unquantifiable interest in innovation.
Los Angeles Times (Aug. 23)
Libyan victory heartening
With the overrunning of Moammar Gadhafi’s compound in Tripoli, the Libyan rebels’ victory finally looks irreversible. … Meanwhile, there are pockets of pro-Gadhafi resistance elsewhere, notably around the tyrant’s home town of Sirte. And both Gadhafi and at least two of his sons are still at large. But now the attention is already shifting to what comes after the battle for Tripoli.
So far the rebels have shown restraint in exacting revenge against regime loyalists, although there are reports of looting. Such disorder is difficult for the National Transitional Council to control without any machinery of government or even a clear idea of what is going on in different parts of Tripoli. Yet it must move toward a position of being able to impose such authority as quickly as possible. The West can help with advisers and by unfreezing around $1.5 billion of Libyan state assets in Europe and the U.S. as soon as Gadhafi and his henchmen are properly isolated.
But the ripples from this remarkable victory will spread far beyond Libya. As the Arab Spring stretches into autumn, the position of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad looks shakier than ever; the EU and U.S. have prepared a draft UN resolution calling for sanctions against his regime. Libya’s revolution should hearten the activists in Tunisia and Egypt, now trying to build democracies from the ruins of authoritarian regimes. It should strengthen the hand of democracy activists living under other such regimes from Morocco to Saudi Arabia too. The end results of the Arab Spring are still far from certain. But this is a moment of freedom to celebrate with the inhabitants of Tripoli.
London Evening Standard (Aug. 24)