FCC Proposes to Empower States to Meet Connectivity Needs of Residents

FCC Proposes to Empower States to Meet Connectivity Needs of Residents
(Greg Eans/The Messenger-Inquirer via AP)
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Another day, another small victory for mid-band spectrum in the United States. 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently approved a proposal 3-2 to expand access to the 4.9 GHz band of spectrum, empowering states to determine how best to meet the connectivity needs of their residents. For nearly 20 years, the band was designated for public safety purposes, but a lack of use by those entities led the FCC to rethink how the spectrum could be better used moving forward. Handing power over to the states is a good first step. States know their own needs. They have all the information they need to strike an accurate balance between using the spectrum for public safety on the one hand, and leveraging it to help bridge the digital divide on the other.  

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been consistently looking for ways to increase access to spectrum and encourage broadband innovation. From promoting investment and deployment of 5G networks, to opening up access to the critical mid-band spectrum, and ensuring Americans can stay connected to the internet during this pandemic, the agency has made a lot of inroads towards achieving its goals.

In 2002, the spectrum was initially allocated for public safety purposes. Outside of its use in highly specific circumstances in major cities like Chicago or New York, spectrum has been underused by the bulk of the country. Of the 90,000 public safety entities that qualify for using this spectrum, only 3,559 licenses to 2,090 public safety organizations have been issued. The potential of this important mid-band spectrum has been largely squandered.

The new proposal would seek to change that. It aims to improve the usage of the spectrum by empowering state governments to have the flexibility of managing their spectrum, instead of allowing the historical, top-down management approach of the spectrum from the FCC to continue. No more limiting leasing opportunities to public safety entities — the proposal would allow states to auction the spectrum to commercial entities, like utilities and critical infrastructure organizations. This would be a great opportunity for rural wireless broadband providers (WISPs) to take advantage of the spectrum to enhance their services and potentially close the digital divide in rural America. 

It’s only natural some public safety groups oppose such a proposal. One argument against the proposal is that states lack the requisite experience to manage the spectrum. But that’s as short-sighted as it is demeaning. A state managing the band for their jurisdiction wouldn’t be hiring incompetent people to handle the process. Besides, as issues arise, states are not going to be left hanging out to dry; the FCC will likely assist states navigating issues states may face as they look to deploy and manage these programs. 

Another claim leveled against the proposal is that new arrangements will interfere with existing public safety organizations’ operations. But these organizations need not worry about interference. States would notify the FCC whenever they are leasing the spectrum to ensure that incumbents and their operations are not being interfered with. 

More experimentation in the management of the spectrum on a state-by-state basis will lead to new uses and new and exciting opportunities. 

Finally, opponents argue that states may treat the ability to license the spectrum as a “cash cow” opportunity. While that's entirely possible, that doesn’t mean they will. States can and should be able to decide how to split up their spectrum for themselves and how to assess leasing fees on their own. 

Even assuming they do use the spectrum to increase revenue, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Auctioning off the spectrum would allow it to go to organizations that value it most and who would actualize more of its potential. The state would still benefit from long-term developments. For example, a private company could be licensed spectrum from the state for the purpose of providing targeted goods or services at a fraction of the cost to the supermajority of public safety organizations — organizations that are currently not taking advantage of the spectrum. The state could make money off of licensing the spectrum while saving money by outsourcing the management of goods and services.

Ultimately, the organizations opposing the proposal believe that the states can’t be trusted to carry out such a process. They couldn’t be more wrong. The historical, top-down approach of regulating the spectrum is archaic. Trying to enforce a one-size-fits all solution on states that face a wide variety of issues is inefficient and unnecessary. After all, states are hubs of innovation and experimentation—they should be allowed to continue being just that. 

James Czerniawski is the Tech and Innovation policy analyst with the Libertas Institute, a free-market think tank in Utah, and a Young Voices Associate Contributor. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesCz19

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