Some of the most valuable real estate out there is nothing you could build a house or a hotel on. It is the government-regulated electromagnetic spectrum, the frequencies over which we broadcast radio, television and, increasingly, data for smart phones, tablets and other wireless gizmos.
But, as it often is with more solid forms of property, this limited asset is being fought over. And the government must act to see that the public interest is protected.
Some of the outfits that already own large chunks of the available spectrum cell phone carriers Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are lobbying the Federal Communications Commission to sell them more space, or at least allow them to buy capacity from other companies. They warn that if they are not allowed to acquire more spectrum, the rapidly growing adoption of high-speed data plans on phones and tablets will use up the available frequencies.
If that happens, air time costs to consumers will rise, and the unpopular practice of limiting each customer's data downloading capacity will become much more common.
Unless it doesn't.
Many independent experts including Martin Cooper, the engineer credited with inventing the cellphone say that the problem is not that the users are filling up the spectrum, but that the carriers are making inefficient use of it. Cooper is among those who say that new equipment and new methods that allow transmissions to share frequencies rather than be defined by them will make room for many times more data traffic than there is today.
The skeptics' concern is that Verizon and others are not worried about meeting their customers' high-maintenance demands for data so much as they are desirous of laying exclusive claim to big swaths of the spectrum for whatever purposes they, and they alone, have in mind.
Some independent experts are calling the whole idea of frequency ownership into doubt. They say it is an understanding of the technology that hasn't moved on much from Jack Benny and FDR's fireside chats.
In this new way of thinking, frequencies can be shared, rather than parceled out for the exclusive use of one or another private interest. That would make it easier for new competitors to offer services on shared bands that previously were the private property of a big corporation.
Neither the FCC nor Congress should be stampeded into any fire sale auctions or transfers of spectrum. Not until they have thoroughly examined the advice of experts who say the whole idea of frequency allotments is soooo last century.