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AT&T CEO: Make Them Sell Us Their Spectrum!
Jun 11, 2012
Supporting capitalism doesn't always mean doing what big businesses want, because sometimes what big businesses want is to use government to trample other people's rights. Take the following suggestion from AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, in his op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal:
Require spectrum holders to put the airwaves to work. Many spectrum holders are speculators seeking an investment gain, with no intent to build a mobile network. We should discourage speculation and do more to ensure that spectrum goes to companies with the experience and means to put it to work. If a buyer hasn't used the spectrum within a reasonable time period—which could vary depending on the spectrum's technical properties or use restrictions—they would either have to put it up for sale, lease it or find a partner who can build it out.
If we think of spectrum as property, which it should be (but legally isn't), we can see that what Stephenson is seeking here is eminent domain abuse adapted to the airwaves: that people who have what he wants be forced to sell it to him (or more precisely, his company) for less than they think it's worth. If he were willing to pay what they thought it was worth, he wouldn't need to "require" them to sell it; they would do so willingly. His proposal would violate the rights of the spectrum owners.
That's true if the owners are in fact doing nothing but holding the spectrum in the hopes of making a profit by selling it later. They've bought it. They have a right to dispose of it as they think best.
And it's also true -- and the effects are worse -- if some of the owners are actually working on new technologies to use the spectrum and the reason they are taking so long to use the spectrum is that they are still busy innovating. Then forcing them, as well as the speculators who might have sold them spectrum, to sell their spectrum to the incumbents might prevent them from bringing their innovations to market -- and the rest of us from using them.
Stephenson says spectrum must be deployed quickly to "support the next generation of Apples, Googles and Facebooks." I notice he doesn't say: the next generation of AT&Ts.