Larry Downes has a remarkable column on CNET news about the shortage of spectrum for use by mobile broadband. It is a catalog of government ineptitude, incompetence, regulatory capture, and short-sightedness. Downes points out the rapid growth of mobile data means it needs access to more bands of useable radio spectrum, but the available inventory is close to zero. He blames a wide range of problems, most if not all of them revolving around the government. For many years, there was the outdated FCC “command and control” licensing system that committed spectrum to technologies that faded away.  There was the FCC’s inability to keep track of the licenses it had awarded.  There was the federal government’s tendency to grab and warehouse spectrum.

When the FCC shifted to an auction model – an important step forward – in the 1990s, it “still has a hard time resisting old temptations . . . . [it] attaches conditions or limits auction eligibility to micromanage emerging markets and industries – or try to . . . . One result of this tinkering has been that several recent auctions failed to meet their reserve price.” Then there is the federal law that – thanks to Congress’s vulnerability to assiduous lobbying – allows local broadcaster to force cable providers to carry their signals, thus reducing incentives for the broadcasters to give up their spectrum. And there is the government’s rejection of the proposed AT&T merger with T-Mobile last year, which “sent an unmistakable signal that [the FCC] will no longer allow market transactions as a work-around to its own plodding and sclerotic mismanagement.”

Finally, there are the tremendous delays imposed by local zoning authorities in allowing new or improved towers to be built. Paradoxically, the delays are the worst in areas that need improvement the most, including Washington, D.C., and the Bay Area. The delays appear to stem in part from local government collusion with existing service providers, and in part from the sheer spirit of NIMBY, but the frequency with which Berkeley appears in the list of problematic localities suggests that leftist resentment of business in general, or the mobile phone industry in particular, is also a factor. The result is that, in spite of recent action by Congress, we may have only three years left before the rising tide of mobile data chokes itself into immobility.

Richard Epstein had wise words yesterday about the fallacies of government by expert and the incompatibility of the administrative state with the rule of law, but as I am not an expert on spectrum policy, mobile data, or cell phones, and have no idea how to solve any of these problems, reading Downes provokes for me only two thoughts. First, what a mess. And second, this is the government that is going to run health care fairly, wisely, expertly, and efficiently? God help us all.


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