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Why Republicans Aren’t Serious About Getting Rural Areas Online

Spectrum policy isn’t the most incendiary or outlandish of the planks in the now-public Republican platform. But for pure disingenuousness, it ranks pretty near the top. 

To put this as simply as possible: The U.S. is running out of the airwaves that transmit TV, radio, and phone signals. Or at least, it’s running out of the big chunks of airwaves—called spectrum—that aren’t reserved for the government or already licensed to telecom companies and other private corporations that have their own exclusive channels. Running out entirely would choke off new wireless communication, putting a serious damper on economic growth.

The GOP platform derides the Obama administration’s broadband policy, saying the feds spent lots of money and still left millions of people—especially in the rural heartland—without Internet access. To fix this, Republicans propose freeing up pieces of spectrum currently occupied by federal agencies and allocating them to the private sector through auctions, which have generated $60 billion for the treasury since the government started holding them in 1994. 

Here’s the problem: Auctions haven’t done much to expand access in the rural areas Republicans claim to love.

They have, however, enriched the big businesses who generally love Republicans. Spectrum auctions are nearly always won by the behemoths AT&T and Verizon, which build out infrastructure in more urban areas and leave less-populated areas alone, in the kind of classic market failure that Republicans find so difficult to recognize. That’s why the Rural Telecom Group, a consortium of smaller wireless carriers, thinks the big boys should be forced to give up the chunks of spectrum they aren’t using.

“We’re very opposed to auctions [the way they’re currently structured], because we know it goes to the highest bidders, not the people who live and work in rural areas and would actually serve them,” says Carri Bennet, the group’s general counsel. “Basically, it forces a rural consumer to have two phones. One to use in rural America, and one to use outside.”

It’s certainly true that the federal government is a spectrum hog—particularly the military, which likes to keep giant bands free and clear for when they might have some compelling national security-related need for them. Fortunately, there’s a better way to increase wireless capacity: Instead of giving companies spectrum for their exclusive use, share it. 

That’s the conclusion of the Obama administration’s scientific brain trust, which in August issued a report on how federal spectrum could best be reused. Essentially, they concluded that shifting the feds entirely onto narrower bands would cost more than an auction could generate. But technology has advanced to the point where lots of users could operate in the same space more cheaply and efficiently, akin to building an open-access freeway instead of dedicated lanes for ambulances, police cars, and chauffeured limousines. Already, unlicensed pieces of spectrum have been most responsible for the Wi-Fi revolution. 

“If the goal is to have ubiquitous mobile broadband at affordable prices, the carriers will never be able to meet that demand with more exclusively licensed spectrum,” says Michael Calabrese, who heads up the New America Foundation’s Wireless Future Project and helped compile the report. “One small junk band of spectrum that’s used for Wi-Fi is now carrying more data than al the wired broadband and commercial mobile broadband together.”

Along with open-internet advocates, Google and Microsoft are big backers of spectrum sharing, because it would allow more people to use their products without necessarily signing up with a wireless carrier. Naturally, that displeases the well-heeled incumbents. AT&T in particular says the government can’t expect private firms to spend billions of dollars building out spectrum infrastructure when they won't get exclusive rights. But the big firms haven’t really been investing in new technology that would allow them to make the best use of what they’ve got, as the New York Times detailed in April. Instead, AT&T has donated twice as much to Republicans as Democrats this election cycle—hiring a lobbyist is easier than changing the whole way you do business. 

Republicans haven’t always been opposed to the idea of sharing spectrum. George W. Bush’s Federal Communications Commission called for more of it to be made available on an unlicensed basis back in 2002, and Alaska senator Ted Stevens proposed a bill to that effect in 2006, with broad bipartisan support. It’s actually a classically conservative idea: The government shouldn’t pick winners and shut out competition, but rather deregulate and allow innovation to flourish. The authors of the GOP platform, though, seem to prefer a course that puts corporate elite over conservative ideals—and their rural constituents still won’t get the kind of broadband access they deserve.