The Political Spectrum


Few issues could seem more dry and technical than radio spectrum, the electromagnetic waves through which radio, television and telecommunication signals pass. But former Federal Communications Commission chief economist Thomas Hazlett has managed to turn spectrum into an intriguing protagonist in his just published history of the US government’s regulation of the airwaves: “The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone.” At his appearance at CEPS on June 27th to discuss his book, Hazlet explained how US regulators often blocked progress at the behest of incumbents, delaying the implementation of FM radio and cable television. But he also explained how recent reforms helped liberate the radio spectrum and generate impressive progress, ushering in the ‘smartphone revolution’, ubiquitous social media and the extraordinary wireless world. In the ensuing debate, the discussion turned to Europe, which shares many of the political and regulatory battles over spectrum that have broken out in the US. The European Parliament is now considering a new EU telco proposal that takes an important crack at reform. It lengthens the duration of licenses to 25 years, which hopefully will be long enough to allow licensees to recoup investments in expensive new 5G connections. But it is timid in encouraging continental-wide coordination on spectrum policy, leaving national governments in charge. The upshot: Europe might end up behind the US in the race to install fast-speed mobile internet connections.