Smart Radios vs. Dumb Cattle: Back to Basics Approach to the Efficient Use of Government Spectrum

34 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2012 Last revised: 26 Sep 2014

Mike Chartier


Date Written: August 14, 2012


Coase, in his seminal 1959 work, recorded the following statement from Congressmen Rogers during the House hearings on subscription television: “if the Government owns a tract of land on which you raise cattle, they charge a man for the use of the land. Why would it not be just as reasonable to charge a man to use the avenues of the air as it would be to use that pasture”. This paper will argue that that bit of prophetic wisdom should be used to reset efforts to free up Government held spectrum for more efficient uses.

For the last decade, attempts to use government spectrum for commercial purposes have almost exclusively focused on either re-allocation or technical coexistence mechanisms, or some combination of the two. The prerequisite that a technical sharing mechanism be employed seems to be a legacy artifact of the circa 2003 negotiation and agreements that allowed for portions of the 5 GHz band to be used for unlicensed WiFi devices. The band is used sporadically (but importantly) by several RADAR applications. Allowing WiFi devices to use the band and wander unrestrained (like dumb cattle) would have disrupt important safety applications. Therefore rules mandating “smart radios”, that would detect the presence of RADAR in the area and restrict their own operation accordingly were adopted. However, beyond geography, those rules greatly restrict the use of the spectrum to essentially one technology (WiFi) for one application (short range local area access).

Unfortunately this model has been applied in every subsequent attempt to gain access to Government spectrum. For instance the NTIA and FCC established a Spectrum Sharing Innovation Test-Bed pilot program to examine the feasibility of increased sharing between federal and nonfederal users by the use of Dynamic Sharing Access techniques. Harold Feld & Dr. Gregory Rose in their paper “Breaking the Logjam: Creating Sustainable Spectrum Access Through Federal Secondary Markets” also propose a technology based (smart radios controlled by a smarter data base) solution. And other industry initiatives such as Qualcomm and Nokia”s Authorised Shared Access (ASA) propose sharing via cognitive technologies.

This paper argues that a more efficient means to gain access to Government spectrum, is to apply a simpler model (again following a land analogy) and allow the NTIA to operate a program similar to the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management which leases and permits for the use, occupancy, and development of the public lands. Thanks to CSEA as amended by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 most of the legal framework exists. The solution to enabling more sharing, and therefore more efficient use of spectrum currently allocated to Federal users is to create incentives for a potential commercial user, and the Government incumbent to enter into negotiations. And to enable the price mechanism to uncover the optimum use of technology or other means applied to either commercial or Government or both systems.

This paper’s proposition is that rather than smart radios, the solution to accessing Government spectrum is a framework that allows for a smart lessee, who can then deploy smart, dumb, or otherwise radios as his application sees fit. The paper analyzes and contrasts the history of Government land and spectrum management and proposes some specific, modest changes that (I believe) would make a big improvement, by enabling a true market solution to the problem.

Keywords: spectrum policy, government spectrum, dynamic spectrum access

Suggested Citation

Chartier, Mike, Smart Radios vs. Dumb Cattle: Back to Basics Approach to the Efficient Use of Government Spectrum (August 14, 2012). 2012 TRPC. Available at SSRN: or

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