July 19, 2011 - 3:19 pm
By John Leibovitz | Deputy Chief, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau

Things are heating up in Washington. Of course, we’re not referring to the ongoing negotiations over the debt ceiling, or even the 100-degree temperatures expected later this week. We’re talking about spectrum policy.

Last week, Republican and Democrat leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee introduced discussion drafts of legislation that would allow the FCC to hold “voluntary incentive auctions” for rights to use electromagnetic spectrum—the airwaves. The draft bills follow bipartisan legislation passed by the Senate Commerce Committee last month.

Never mind the heat—it’s wonky talk like this that keeps people away from Washington in the summer (or all year round, for that matter). But actually, a very simple and powerful idea animates the proposed legislation.

Gordon Crovitz of the Wall Street Journal explained it lucidly in his column yesterday.

One of the FCC’s main responsibilities is to grant licenses to use spectrum. For many years, the agency determined the “best” licensee through an administrative process. In 1993, Congress granted the FCC authority to hold spectrum auctions. Nearly two decades later, FCC auctions have spurred hundreds of billions of dollars of private investment in wireless networks and generated over $50 billion in proceeds for the Treasury.

Now, as America faces a spectrum crunch driven by the spectacular growth of mobile broadband, we need to take the next step.

Using incentive auctions, we can facilitate the voluntary transfer of licenses from old uses to more valuable new uses; from willing sellers to willing buyers. The increase in spectrum value gets split among the buyers, the sellers, and the American taxpayer. But the public actually receives a double dividend. The new spectrum fuels ever-faster, ever-cheaper wireless networks and the incredible devices and apps that use them.

The time is right for incentive auctions. Compelling public benefits have generated true bipartisan support. Now that’s a hot idea.