Everyone’s wallet gets light from time to time. In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Willie Nelson was so broke, he sold the rights to several of his most well-known songs for less than what a full tank of gas would cost today. “I needed fifty dollars!” he later recalled. In hindsight, the idea of letting the rights to “Crazy” go for a paltry ten bucks seems, well, crazy. Unfortunately Congress may be on the verge of making the same sort of short-sighted mistake with its proposed plan to sell off TV broadcast spectrum as a method of raising a small amount of revenue in the short-term.
The shift to digital has opened up opportunities in the old over-the-air TV band. This part of the radio spectrum could foster innovative technologies and help bring more affordable broadband to hard-to-cover areas. That is, if the spectrum isn’t locked down by America’s dominant mobile carriers.
In the face of economic hardship, iffy decisions can be too easily justified. Currently, policymakers — including the ballyhooed Super Committee — are exploring ways to put some much-needed cash in the US Treasury. Selling America’s spectrum to established industry players might seem like a fine idea at the moment. But it could leave us singing the blues down the line.
Congress is currently considering proposals that would trade very small, short-term revenue generation for an inflexible environment that could inhibit innovation, growth and creativity in tomorrow’s wireless marketplace.
This isn’t just a wonky debate between high-tech enthusiasts and bean-counters — it also matters to America’s creative community, who increasingly depend on access to affordable, high-speed internet in practically every aspect of their lives and careers. These creators are major contributors to local and national economies, and help define America as a global beacon of free expression and entrepreneurship.
Broadband is a proven economic stimulator, but it is still out-of-reach for many. Our nation is also falling further and further behind in terms of broadband speed and quality. Innovation around spectrum could unleash next-generation platforms that could propel America to regain its leadership in information technology, and help us keep pace in a global economy that every day grows more competitive.
The innovation train no longer has a single conductor. Unlicensed wireless technologies like WiFi already comprises nearly two thirds of America’s smartphone and tablet use. Increasingly, businesses and municipalities small and large are turning to unlicensed spectrum to power everything from inventory management systems to energy smart grids. Sweeter spectrum in the TV band could bring even more potent innovations.
If Congress sells off our spectrum resources to big companies like Verizon and AT&T, leaving none for unlicensed uses, those companies are likely to consolidate their control over the market and squeeze out competition.
Less competition means less innovation and less positive return for consumers and enterprising Americans.
Tomorrow’s Willie Nelson should have the opportunity to get maximum value from his great ideas. Access to wireless technologies and applications can help advance that goal for not only creators, but also every other breed of entrepreneur. While Congress might generate some cash now with the proposed auctions, they may also set an artificial cap on economic growth and prosperity.
Consider this Congress’ “Crazy” moment: sell now or wait-and-see. As it turns out, Willie held on to that particular ditty and ended up with one of the single most recognizable — and valuable — songs in the American canon. What will America’s spectrum resources yield in terms of innovation and economic value? Congress would do well to consider that question carefully before handing off this valuable resource.