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Radio Spectrum Future

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While digital rights management was under discussion at Berkeley last weekend, the nearby Stanford Center for Internet and Society held a conference titled “Spectrum Policy: Property or Commons?” Amy Harmon of the NY Times was there:

    technologists, economists and lawyers clashed over how the airwaves should be allocated with the advent of technology that may make the traditional notion of “interference” between bands obsolete.

    Some economists argue that rather than have the Federal Communications Commission allocate licenses, large chunks of the spectrum should be sold outright, creating a market economy for spectrum that, they argue, would drive down prices and spur innovation.

    Others argued that as technology like software-enabled radios make it easier to communicate over the airwaves without interfering, such ownership rights are unnecessary and would only serve to limit the wide-ranging uses of the spectrum by requiring cumbersome transaction costs for whoever wanted to use it.

They had a moot court:

    that pitted Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor, and Yochai Benkler, a New York University law school professor, representing the public-ownership side of the debate against Gerald R. Faulhaber, a business professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Thomas W. Hazlett, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute, taking the side of property.

    One judge, Harold Demsetz, professor emeritus at U.C.L.A. business school, who acknowledged that his bias leaned heavily toward the property side, said he had been impressed with the debate, but he asked for more clarification.

The moot court can be heard here.

More background on the conference here:

    Wireless innovations are changing the way we live.

    We are evolving from the wired world to a wireless one, where information is exchanged seamlessly through the air we breathe. Wi-Fi, drive-by infofueling, location enabled systems and “mesh-style” networks – the possibilities are limited only by the limits on innovation.

    An emerging consensus holds that one of the greatest limits on innovation is the government’s method of allocating portions of electromagnetic spectrum. Since its discovery, small chunks of spectrum have been auctioned off to the highest bidder, or given away to commercial interests in exchange for their submission to government regulation. Laws prohibit the resale of spectrum, which means that unused spectrum cannot be transferred to others who want it, and is therefore wasted.

    As a result, would-be innovators never know if spectrum will be available for their new inventions. Consequently, they can’t factor it into a business plan, or build new wireless applications in their garage knowing that the necessary spectrum will be available to their future customers.

    In an effort to encourage innovation, critics of the current model have proposed radical – and radically different — reforms. Some say spectrum should be treated like ‘property’, giving purchasers the same rights afforded any property owner, including the right to exclude others from using it, and the right to transfer ownership. In contrast, proponents of a ‘commons’ model argue that spectrum is like a stream that belongs to all of us, and that current technological innovations allow sharing of the resource – a practical, not moral, argument.

    Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase criticized the FCC’s spectrum policy in 1959, arguing that rules preempting private ownership of spectrum led to catastrophic inefficiencies in the market. Both the ‘property’ and ‘commons’ proponents claim that Coase’s theory supports their model, and that each view best promotes market efficiency and innovation.

    At “Spectrum Policy: Property or Commons?” leading figures in this debate will explain their views on today’s wireless technology and market conditions, and discuss the complex implications of the competing models. Then they’ll debate their positions before a blue ribbon panel of judges: renowned economist Harold Demsetz, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski, and Dr. Vernon Smith, the Recipient Nobel Prize for Economics, in 2002 of George Mason University.

    The aim of the day will be to explore both paradigms, their relationships to the work of Ronald Coase, and the vital unanswered questions facing the future of spectrum management.

Cory Doctorow blogged the whole thing here.

Doc gives the frequency question some background of his own.

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