The Wasteland: Anticommons, White Spaces, and the Fallacy of Spectrum

Nearly fifty years after Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow notoriously labeled television a “vast wasteland,” the FCC has an opportunity to transform the barren terrain of broadcast spectrum into a verdant oasis of connectivity. The long-dormant “white spaces” around broadcast television channels may soon be opened, creating major opportunities for wireless broadband access as well as innovative new communications systems. The white spaces also illustrate persistent misunderstandings about property rights. TV broadcasting today represents a tragedy of the anticommons: a government- engendered misallocation of property rights, resulting in under-consumption of a valuable resource. Advocates of exclusive spectrum rights go astray by insisting that spectrum itself is the scarce resource, and assuming a centralized service delivery model. The FCC’s unlicensed approach will best unlock the potential of the white spaces. However, both the exclusive and unlicensed models have a place in the broadcast bands. A hybrid approach can avoid gridlock and maximize the value of “the people’s airwaves.”