Let’s Nationalize Cellular Airwaves

by Colin Berkshire

If I were to suggest we privatize and sell off Yellowstone Park there would be mass outrage. If I suggested selling off the national highway system, or selling rivers, or privatize road maintenance I think we would all agree this is one stupid idea.

So let me assert that the cellular airwaves are every bit as critical to this country as is Yellowstone or our highway system. These airwaves need to be managed for the public good.

Today, Verizon and AT&T and others are massive hoarders of unused spectrum. They bought it and hoard it simply to prevent competition and to prevent effective utilization. This is horrible public policy.

We should re-nationalize the spectrum. The government should buy it back for what the carriers originally paid for it. (In total it would come to about one month’s industry revenues.) The airwaves belong to the people.

Next, tower operators should be granted a Certificate of Convenience and Necessity to operate a tower in a certain unserviceable area.

The tower operator should treat every cell phone equally. Every cell phone should be allowed to utilize every tower. Tower operators would compete to fill in every gap to pick up as much traffic as possible.

Tower operators would be compensated for usage on a fair and reasonable basis by the cellular telephone companies who would issue phone numbers, sell, service, and bill.

The buy-back of the cellular spectrum would be paid for with a 3.5% federal tax on gross receipts received by any tower operator.

Such a plan could be implemented within a year. It’s technically almost trivial to do. Carriers would simply turn on roaming to allow any phone to roam to any tower. The technology is already in place for this. T-Mobile and AT&T used to have mutual roaming agreements as did Sprint and Verizon. The big monopolies have phased out those agreements (or have priced roaming at ridiculous levels.)

So in practice what I suggest is we re-nationalize the cellular airwaves. We pay for this buyback with a 3.5% tax. We mandate roaming between all carriers and all towers. We establish fair roaming revenue sharing with tower operators (such as $2.50 per gigabyte of traffic.) And we allow anybody to build a tower to serve an area not presently served. Anybody can be in the tower business. I can even see farmers setting up tower cooperatives.

Really, isn’t this the right answer for everybody?