Congress is considering a bill which would authorize the Federal Communications Commission to reassign certain electromagnetic spectrum for mobile broadband services through “voluntary incentive auctions.” Speaking at a trade show earlier this month, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski was critical of provisions in the “Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum Act” (H.R. 3630, Title IV) limiting the FCC’s power to impose conditions on successful bidders that have nothing to do with maximizing revenue for the Treasury.
One provision would prohibit the commission from unreasonably restricting who can participate in a spectrum auction, such as large firms. Another provision in the JOBS Act would prevent the FCC from requiring a successful bidder to sell access to its network on a wholesale basis.
“It’s a mistake,” according to Genachowski, “because it preempts an expert agency process that’s fact-based, data-driven and informed by a broad range of economists, technologists and stakeholders on an open record.”
Genachowski’s old boss, former FCC Chairman Reed E. Hundt, reportedly criticized the proposals during a Capitol Hill briefing on Tuesday, as well.
He worried that the bill would allow the largest wireless carriers to buy up all of the spectrum at auction, expanding their dominance of the airwaves. He said the carriers might not even plan to use some of the spectrum but could buy it just to kill off competition.
He argued that Congress should rely on the FCC to use its technical expertise to set the conditions of the auction.
These guys apparently will never learn.
The FCC has a poor track record of trying to improve on the free market, and the Reed Hundt era is recent exhibit “A.” Seeking to promote competition in local telephone service during Hundt’s tenure in the late 1990s, the FCC required incumbent local telephone companies to provide below-cost wholesale access to their networks while preventing them from competing in the long-distance market. According to Hundt, in You Say You Want a Revolution? (2000),
The Clinton administration had the conviction that astute and sharp-edged rules could open markets to competitors … some firms would succeed, others fail. But the competition would create choice for consumers, and the diversity of the competitors would weaken the political influence of the big, established (and typically Republican-leaning) firms. The new competitive markets would stimulate investment in new technologies and lead to fair prices for consumers. All five lanes of the information highway would converge in a race to tomorrow (which we would not stop thinking and talking about).
The FCC’s “pro-competition” framework was an abject failure which led to overinvestment in the core of the network and underinvestment in the local connections at the network’s edge. According to Robert W. Crandall of the Brookings Institution,
For the most part, these policies simply transferred billions of dollars from incumbent telephone companies to fund marketing campaigns required to sell the same services under a different name [that of an unaffiliated retail competitor].
While Reed Hundt and other idealists were busy helping to precipitate an investment bubble that burst in 2000-02, meaningful voice competition was emerging, unbeknownst to the FCC, from the wireless and cable industries which are not subject to active FCC oversight.
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