From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Education Program:Northeastern University/Media and Democracy (2013 Q1)

Spectrum Commons Theory[edit]


The theory of the spectrum commons states that the telecommunication spectrum should be directly managed by its users rather than regulated by governmental or private institutions. The proponents of this theory argue that new spectrum sharing technologies allow a virtually unlimited number of persons to use the same spectrum without causing each other interference and that this eliminates the need for either private rights in, or government control of, spectrum[1].

Spectrum Commons Theory was developed to open up the spectrum to everyone. In this theory, users can share a spectrum as a commons without prior authorization from higher governance or regime. Proponents of spectrum commons theory understand that government distribution of spectrum is inefficient, and to be a true commons one must open up the spectrum to the users and loosen the grip of either the government or private control [2]. The promise of the commons approach as one technologist, George Gilder once put it, "You can use the spectrum as much as you want as long as you don't collide with anyone else or pollute it with high-powered noise or other nuisances."[1]

The basic characteristics of spectrum commons theory is unlimited access to resources but as most modern theorist point out, need to be with "some" constraints.[3] A commons by definition is a resource that is owned or controlled jointly by a group of individuals. In order for a commons to be viable, someone must control the resource and set orderly sharing rules to govern its use [1].


The radio spectrum is a shared resource that has perhaps most strikingly affects the well being of society. Its use is governed by a set of rules and narrow restrictions, designed to limit interference, whose origins go back nearly a century. While in recent years some of those rules have been replaced by more flexible market like arrangements, the fundamental approach of this institution remains essentially unchanged [4].

In the earlier days of radio communications there were no regulations. At that time everyone had to the right to use the spectrum without limitation. When a particular spectrum was filled up or overused, it created harmful interference. In order to manage the spectrum and prevent harmful interference the NRA had to regulate the use of the spectrum. The period of no regulation only lasted a couple years, but this concept of no regulation is what guided Spectrum Commons Theory[3].

Time Event
1897 Marconi invented a radiocommunications device
1910 First attempt to regulate radio frequency by the US Navy
1912 Radio Act of 1912 authorized Secretary of Commerce and Labor and President to regulate Communication
1921 Secretary of Commerce and Labor refused to renew a license
1922 Inter-department Radio Advisory Committee set up
1923-1926 Court rejected Secretary of Commerce and Labor attempt to regulate radio communication
1926 Joint Resolution-90 day licenses for use of spectrum
1927 Radio Act of 1927
1934 Federal Communications Commission-founded
1940-1954 Highly regulated by authority-licensed renewal

In the 1950s, a man by the name of Ronald Coase pointed out that the radio spectrum was no scarcer than wood or wheat, yet government did not routinely ration those items. Coase instead proposed the private ownership of, and a market in, spectrum, which would lead to a better allocation of the resource and avoid rent seeking behavior by would be users of the spectrum. In the late 1990s, it seemed like the property rights view might carry the day as Congress finally allowed the FCC to auction licenses to use spectrum.

Radio Spectrum is doled out to users by what the Federal Communications Commission calls a “command-and-control” process. The [FCC] first carves out a block of spectrum and decides to what use it will be put (e.g., television, mobile telephony). Then, the agency gives away, at no charge, the right to use the spectrum to applicants it deems appropriate. The FCC makes its choices based largely on a public record generated by a regulatory proceeding. The rationale for such a system has been that the radio spectrum is a scarce resource, that there are more people who would like to use it than there is space available, and thus that the government must apportion it lest there be chaos[1].


Complete Open Commons[edit]

Spectrum Commons Theory although conceptually tries to focus on functioning as a completely free and open environment, facts points to this idea as flawed. Complete open commons, is a regime under which anyone has access to an unowned resource without limitation; no one controls access to the resource under open access. As previously mentioned however, in order for a commons to be viable, someone must control the resource and set orderly sharing rules to govern its use [1]. While it is true that access to a commons can be open, this does not mean there is no central rule-setting authority [2].

Complete open commons is not a feasible regime for spectrum because, as a scarce resource, it will be subject to tragedy. Even given new spectrum-sharing technologies, a controller is still needed because these technologies require standards setting and enforcement in order to function [2].

Market Based Commons[edit]

Economists, who have long been skeptical about the ability of government agencies to allocate resources efficiently by “picking winners,” have preponderantly favored a market approach to the allocation of resources generally, and to the allocation of the spectrum in particular. As early as 1959, Ronald Coase wrote that spectrum was a fixed factor of production, like land or labor, and should be treated in the same way, with its use determined by the pricing system and awarded to the highest bidder. Coase concluded that government allocation of spectrum-use rights was not necessary to prevent interference and that, in fact, by preempting market allocation of spectrum, regulation was the source of extreme inefficiency. Economists since Coase have favored a market-based approach if there is profit to be made from the charge of an entrance fee to such a park, then private enterprise and the profit motive can be relied upon to lead firms to carry out the necessary arrangements. And if entry into the commons is sufficiently beneficial to the entrants, there will indeed be profits to be made by giving them the opportunity to do so [4].


Another way to expand on the Spectrum Commons Theory is looking at it as a supercommons. As Werbach points out, a supercommons can operate alongside the property and commons regimes, which are just different configurations of usage rights associated with spectrum. Bandwidth need not be infinite to justify a fundamental reconceptualization of the spectrum debate. Even with real-world scarcity and transaction-cost constraints, a default rule allowing unfettered wireless communication would most effectively balance interests to maximize capacity.[5] In other words, the commons would be the baseline, with property encompassed within it, rather than the reverse. The initial legal rule for this spectrum should be universal access. Anyone would be permitted to transmit anywhere, at any time, in any manner, so long as they did not impose an excessive burden on others [5].


  1. ^ a b c d e Brito, Jerry (2006). Regulation. Cato Institute. p. 7. 
  2. ^ a b c Brito, Jerry. "The Spectrum Commons in Theory and Practice" (PDF). Stanford Technology. Stanford Technology Law Review. Retrieved 2007.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  3. ^ a b Nattawut, Paru. "History and Conceptual Development of Spectrum Commons in the USA" (PDF). Department of Technology Management and Economics. Chalmers University of Technology. 
  4. ^ a b William, Baumol (2005). Toward an Evolutionary Regime for Spectrum Governance. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press. 
  5. ^ a b Werbach, Kevin. "Supercommons:Toward A Unified Theory of Wireless Communication" (PDF). Texas Law Review.