Misconceptions about misconceptions

Arnold Kling: A ‘Commons’ Misconception

I’m afraid Arnold is the one with the misconception. He describes the FCC’s "exclusive rights" model for spectrum as "clear title". What he’s really talking about, though, is flexibility. In other words, allowing licensees to use their spectrum for whatever service and with whatever technology they want. That’s actually what PCS licensees can do today. It’s different than granting property rights, which would allow the licensees to sell their spectrum.

Property rights, which is what "exclusive use" implies, would make the shared spread-spectrum uses Arnold supports less likely. Spectrum owners will resist shared uses, because it would be hard for them to capture the benefits. As Arnold suggests, a company like Intel could buy spectrum and devote it to shared use, either to sell its own hardware or to charge a fee for hardware that operates in the band. However, it’s far from clear that would happen, and even if it did, a proprietary gated community wouldn’t enjoy the same beneficial network effects of an open, Internet-like commons.

We should experiment with some property rights in spectrum, because the approach could produce benefits over the status quo. But we don’t know for sure. We shouldn’t forever foreclose the possibility of a commons by granting "clear title" across the frequency dial.