Sky-high rents in major cities have awoken many to the problem of inefficient land use driven by restrictive zoning rules that are supported by those who say “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) to high-density housing. A similar problem is unfolding with the rules for spectrum, the span of radio frequencies used to connect everything from your smartphone to your wireless headphones. Government agencies and some private companies are acting as spectrum NIMBYs, attempting to prevent the development of next-generation wireless services more commonly known as 5G. Spectrum NIMBYism hurts American consumers, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should not allow it to obstruct wireless deployment.
Like zoning NIMBYs, spectrum NIMBYs have attempted to parlay their control of some resources to stop others from productively using adjacent resources. Just as local homeowners may try to keep property values high by preventing the construction of a new apartment building, incumbent spectrum users often try to prevent other uses from moving in to adjacent bands.
For example, the FCC recently auctioned the 24 GHz band to wireless carriers building 5G networks. But at the eleventh hour, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration objected to using this band for 5G because of claims that doing so would interfere with weather satellites that operate in the band just below 24 GHz. NOAA’s claims do not have much supporting evidence. But to NIMBY’s it doesn’t much matter whether their apocalyptic predictions actually come to pass. They just don’t want new tenants next door.
Take the 5.9 GHz band, which was zoned for automotive safety use twenty years ago. While the proverbial neighborhood around this band has been used extensively by unlicensed technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the 5.9 GHz band has seen almost no deployment. Still, efforts to allow Wi-Fi in this band have also met with fierce resistance from the Department of Transportation and automotive companies. Like landowners who got their property on the cheap, auto companies don’t want to give up access or start paying for a resource they originally got for free.
Another example is the 2.5 GHz band, which was zoned for educational uses in the 1960s. It turns out, however, that the people who run schools aren’t experts in deploying and operating wireless networks. Most of the Educational Broadband Service licenses have simply gone unused. Over time, the FCC has gradually relaxed the education-use requirements and allowed 2.5 GHz licensees to lease their spectrum to wireless carriers. But when the FCC moved to end special zoning for educational uses, opponents, including the Department of Education, decried the death of an educational broadband ecosystem that didn’t exist. In fact, the problem was that middlemen who learned to navigate the complex leasing rules would lose out if the rules for the band were liberalized.
The parallels between land use and radio frequencies call for a common solution to NIMBY problems: Rather than letting the government decide what buildings get built, we should allow greater flexibility by upzoning land. Likewise, rather than letting the government dictate what wireless services get deployed, we should “upzone” spectrum by allowing market prices to determine the most productive use of radio frequencies.
For spectrum, this means a regime that allows flexibility for the ever-changing uses of radio waves and secondary markets in which usage rights can change hands without the government’s permission. The wireless marketplace is growing rapidly, and Americans depend on radio waves every day in ways they don’t even realize. Innovative wireless technologies now fuel everything from tweets and mobile games to precision agriculture and telemedicine. The FCC should resist spectrum NIMBYs by opening up more spectrum and implementing reforms to make the market more flexible and efficient so that everyone can benefit from these services—and others we can’t even envision yet.