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CHAPTER I - Introduction

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent auction of 65 megahertz of spectrum for mobile broadband (Auction 97) generated a record-setting $41 billion. This amount is twice the unit price paid for comparable spectrum in the FCC’s 2008 auction (Auction 73) and five times that paid in 2006 (Auction 66).i This trend is the clearest indication yet, that the supply of spectrum access is not keeping pace with the tsunami of demand for wireless devices such as smartphones and tablets, and the spectrum-based applications they support.

Although spectrum, like other economic resources, is inherently scarce in some sense, economists have long argued that government policy, not physics, is the major cause of the immediate shortage of radio frequencies. The federal government’s traditional, command-and-control approach to spectrum regulation successfully limits interference but at the expense of efficient spectrum utilization and technological innovation. In recent decades the FCC has embraced more flexible approaches to managing certain bands, and with dramatic results. Nevertheless, most prime spectrum is still subject to legacy regulation.

With the success of these alternative approaches, support for reform of spectrum management has grown. The various reform proposals are alike in calling for more flexible use of the spectrum. However, they reflect competing, if not conflicting, visions of what spectrum flexibility would mean, and they all face major political and institutional impediments.

In October 2014, the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program convened its annual Roundtable on Spectrum Policy to explore the potential for “general purpose spectrum,” which Roundtable organizers described as a regime in which all non-federal spectrum, other than some carved out for specific socially beneficial services, would be eligible for the widest possible range of uses. (The organizers excluded federal spectrum only because it had been the focus of past conferences.) At a two-day offsite convening at the Aspen Wye River Conference Centers in Queenstown, Maryland, a group of two dozen invited experts—from government, industry, academia and non-profit organizations—discussed the scope and feasibility of such a concept.

The Roundtable was loosely organized around four broad questions:

  • What would a general purpose spectrum regime look like, and is it a worthwhile goal?
  • What are the limits of general purpose spectrum; in particular, what (if any) socially beneficial services will still require a set-aside of dedicated, single-use spectrum?
  • From an engineering perspective, what is needed to enable a general purpose spectrum regime, including technical breakthroughs and government regulatory actions?
  • What are some concrete strategies for overcoming the (non-technical) impediments to a general purpose spectrum regime?

This report represents a thematic rather than a chronological account of the discussion that took place. Section II provides a brief history of FCC regulation of spectrum use, Sections III through V summarize the discussion relevant to each of the four questions. Section VI offers a brief synopsis of post-Roundtable developments pertinent to the topic.

i In Auction 97, also known as the AWS-3 auction (for Advanced Wireless Services), the FCC assigned new licenses in the 1695-1710 MHz, 1755-1780 MHz and 2155-2180 MHz bands. The auction began on November 13, 2014, and closed on January 29, 2015, after 341 rounds of bidding. Gross bids totaled $44.9 billion and net bids totaled $41.3 billion—far more than many analysts had predicted. The two largest bidders were AT&T, which spent more than $18 billion, and Verizon, which spent more than $10 billion. There is continued controversy around the role of two small businesses, Northstar Wireless and SNR Wireless, which are majority owned by Dish Networks. The two firms made more than $13 billion in gross bids but are scheduled to pay only around $10 billion if the FCC concludes that they qualify for the Commission’s 25 percent discount for small businesses. See the FCC’s fact sheet on Auction 97. Available online: For more detail on the controversy over Dish Networks, including whether the participation by Northstar and SNR (as well as a third, wholly-owned subsidiary of Dish) served to drive up auction prices to artificial levels, see Phil Goldstein, “Analysis: Dish’s AWS-3 Partners Bid Against Each Other, Potentially Pushing Up Prices by $20B,” Fierce Wireless, February 13, 2015. Available online: Auction 97 is one of two significant events related to spectrum that has occurred since the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Spectrum Policy met in October 2014. The other event is the FCC’s approval, in March 2015 following a two-year proceeding, of the rules creating a Citizens Broadband Radio Service in the 3.5 GHz band. See Section II for a discussion of these path-breaking rules.

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