Arnold Kling

Bandwidth Wants to be Free?

Arnold Kling, Great Questions of Economics
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If it were feasible, the optimal way to move data the "last mile" would be using the airwaves. In a profile in Wired, Dewayne Hendricks argues that it is feasible.

There's no sensible reason why Americans shouldn't have inexpensive, ubiquitous, high-performance broadband access, Hendricks says. Using technologies that are already available or in fast-track development, everyone could enjoy reliable, fully symmetrical wireless at T1 speed or better. No more digital divide. No more last-mile problem. No more compromises. The only things standing in the way are the FCC, Congress, and "other people who just don't get it."

One obstacle to Hendricks' vision is the current ownership structure of spectrum. In the 1990's, the FCC auctioned off spectrum to firms for "personal communications services" under the assumption that spectrum would remain scarce. Also, the television broadcasters were given spectrum in order to provide high-definition television (HDTV).

Today, it looks as if the model of licensing spectrum for specific uses is inefficient. Imagine how stifled the Internet would be if you were not allowed to use the same network for email, web browsing data transfer, digital telephony, and so forth--but instead the government restricted each service to using a different category of network.

Discussion Question. Re-allocating spectrum implies very large wealth transfers among different industries. If Hendricks is correct, and spectrum should be shared rather than segmented, should the government simply confiscate spectrum and re-assign it, regardless of who loses and who wins?

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