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Boucher: It’s Time for FCC to Heed the Call of Humility

Calls for humbler government are as old as the republic. In this era of frenzied media coverage and hyperpartisan dialogue, few would apply the humble label to anything related to the federal government. It’s time for at least one agency to heed the call.

As it writes rules for the availability of additional spectrum through incentive auctions, the Federal Communications Commission should apply a light touch — a truly humble approach — to the wireless sector, which is a major contributor to our national economic recovery.

The FCC is asking Congress to confer upon the agency the authority to undertake incentive auctions of spectrum donated by current spectrum holders in exchange for a portion of the auction proceeds. In the hands of the commercial wireless carriers, this new spectrum will help to alleviate the spectrum shortage the industry currently faces. The provision of new spectrum is vital to consumers and to our nation’s economy. But the FCC is also suggesting that it should have the power to impose conditions on these spectrum auctions and decide which companies are allowed to participate and which are not — a decidedly unhumble approach. The market should govern these decisions, not a government agency.

According to a study co-authored by economists Robert J. Shapiro and Kevin A. Hassett and released by NDN, a think tank and advocacy organization, the adoption and use of successive generations of cellphones supported by the transition from 2G to 3G wireless networks led to the creation of 1,585,000 new jobs in the United States from April 2007 to June 2011.

The report, “The Employment Effects of Advances in Internet and Wireless Infrastructure: Evaluating the Transitions from 2G to 3G and from 3G to 4G,” also estimates that a rapid transition from 3G to 4G mobile broadband networks could create more than 231,000 additional jobs within a year. The new spectrum will speed that transition.

During the past 10 years, consumers enjoyed plummeting prices per minute, per megabit and per message. The fact that wireless is a free and competitive market has led to this evolution, and estimates for future wireless growth hinge on it staying that way.

The right kind of incentive spectrum auction can help raise billions of dollars, enable public safety networks and further expand wireless quality and competition. Public estimates have suggested that initial spectrum incentive auctions of airwaves returned voluntarily to government by television broadcasters could raise $25 billion. However, for our nation to reap all of these benefits, free and competitive markets must be allowed to work so that this limited spectrum is doled out for the most economically sustainable purposes.

Innovation is unpredictable. Policies crafted today to fit the rapidly evolving wireless industry will be outdated tomorrow. A robust mobile app economy, our highly competitive marketplace for digital devices and rapidly changing technologies are all enabled by rules that ensure the most efficient utilization of spectrum in a way that meets consumer demand for high-speed mobile broadband services.

A rule that disqualifies incentive auction bidders based on their size or their market position would be highly detrimental and severely undermine our effort to achieve these laudable goals. That’s why having the correct policies are crucial as we look to reignite our economy.

Broadband is a key engine of economic opportunity, one that leverages America’s comparative advantages in innovation and entrepreneurship. Intelligent use of high-speed Internet connectivity makes businesses stronger and more productive, manufacturers leaner and government more efficient. In health care, information technologies save lives and save money, allowing individuals to have greater freedom and superior care. Educational broadband advances learning and achievement. Multiple analyses show broadband making us more energy efficient, expanding social opportunities and helping bring families and communities closer together.

This technology matters, and government has a role to advance and implement solutions that foster private-sector commitments and investment in high-speed mobile broadband for the benefit of consumers and America’s economy.

We should pause upon hearing that a government agency is asking to tinker with market forces by giving certain companies a leg up and others a ball and chain. A free market has the fortitude to meet the needs of consumers and our nation’s economy over the long haul. In this instance, practicing a little humility would clearly be a good thing.

Former Rep. Rick Boucher was a 14-term Member of the House who chaired the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet and co-founded the Congressional Internet Caucus. He’s currently honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and head of the government strategies practice at Sidley Austin in Washington.

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