Spectrum Policy Reform and the Next Frontier of Property Rights
University of Colorado Law School
Dale N. Hatfield
University of Colorado at Boulder
George Mason Law Review, Vol. 60, No. 3, 2008
University of Colorado Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-08
The scarcity of wireless spectrum reflects a costly failure of regulation. In practice, large swaths of spectrum are vastly underused or used for low value activities, but the regulatory system prevents innovative users from gaining access to such spectrum through marketplace transactions. In calling for the propertyzing of swaths of spectrum as a replacement for the current command-and-control system, many scholars have wrongfully assumed the simplicity of how such a regime would work in practice. In short, many scholars suggest that spectrum property rights can easily borrow key principles from trespass law, reasoning that since property rights work well for land, they can work well for spectrum rights as well. But as we explain, spectrum is not the same as land, and a poorly designed property rights regime for spectrum might even be worse than the legacy model of spectrum regulation.
This Article addresses three central questions that confront the design and implementation of property rights in spectrum. First, it suggests how policymakers must develop a set of rights and remedies around spectrum property rights that reflect the fact that radio signals defy boundaries and can propagate in unpredictable ways. In particular, if policymakers simply created rights in spectrum and enforced them like rights in land (i.e., with injunctions for trespass), they would invite strategic behavior: spectrum speculators would buy licenses for the sole purpose of suing other licensees when their transmission systems created interference outside the permissible boundary (i.e., act as spectrum trolls). Second, it rejects the suggestion that policymakers establish a unitary property right for spectrum, arguing that policymakers should zone the spectrum by establishing different levels of protection against interference (i.e., an ability to transmit signals with more latitude) in different frequency bands. Finally, this Article discusses what institutional strategy will best facilitate the development of the property right and its enforcement, concluding that an administrative agency - be it a new one or a reformed FCC - is better positioned than a court to develop and enforce the rules governing the use of spectrum so as to facilitate technological progress and prevent parties with antiquated equipment from objecting to more efficient uses of spectrum.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 62
Keywords: spectrum policy, property rights, Coase, telecommunications regulation
JEL Classification: K23
Date posted: February 26, 2008