Sunday, June 26, 2011

The LightSquared Mess Shouldn’t Count Against Coase

It seems there’s a new meme floating around DC: I’ve been asked from both sides of the spectrum rights polemic whether the Lightsquared/GPS situation proves that Coasian make-spectrum-property advocates are crazy because the rights seem to be pretty well defined in this case, and yet the argument drags on at the FCC rather than being resolved through market deals. I suspect the source is Harold Feld’s blog My Insanely Long Field Guide to Lightsquared v. The GPS Guys where he says:

For a spectrum wonk such as myself, it simply does not get better than this. I also get one more real world example where I say to all the “property is the answer to everything” guys: “Ha! You think property is so hot? The rights are clearly defined here. Where’s your precious Coasian solution now, smart guys?”

The “Coasian” position does have its problems (see below), but this isn’t an example of one of them. I think Harold’s premise is incorrect: the rights are NOT well-defined. While LightSquared’s transmission rights are clear, GPS’s right to protection – or equivalently, LightSquared’s obligation to protect GPS receivers from its transmissions – is entirely unclear. There’s no objective, predictable definition of the protection that’s required, just a vague generalities, built into statute (see e.g. Mike Marcus’s Harmful Interference: The Definitional Challenge).

LightSquared’s transmission permissions are in some sense meaningless, since “avoiding harmful interference” will always trump whatever transmit right they have, and there’s no way to know in advance what will constitute harmful interference. I believe that’s a fundamental problem with almost all radio rights definitions to date, and why I’ve proposed the Three Ps.

The “Coasian” position’s real important problems are on view elsewhere:

(1) While negotiation between cellular operators to shift cell boundaries show that transactions can succeed in special cases, there is no evidence yet that transaction costs for disputes between different kinds of service will be low, and thus that negotiations will succeed in the general case. Even if one can ensure that rights are well defined, it may prove politically impossible to reduce the number of negotiating parties to manageable levels since radio licenses are a cheap way for the government to distribute largesse to interest groups. This is most obvious in the case of unlicensed operation, but many licensed services such as public safety and rural communications also result in a myriad of licensees.

(2) The FCC’s ability and proclivity to jump in and change operating rules (i.e. licensees rights) in the middle of the game makes regulatory lobbying more efficient than market negotiation. This may be unavoidable given law and precedent. There is no way for today’s Commission to bind tomorrow’s Commission to a path of action; legislation is the only way to do that, and even statute is subject to change.

(3) A significant chunk of radio services aren’t amenable to market forces since they’re operated by government agencies that can’t put a monetary value on their operations, and/or can’t take money in exchange for adjusted rights. Nobody is willing to quantify the cost of a slightly increased risk that an emergency responder won’t be able complete a call, or that a radar system won’t see a missile, even if those systems have a non-zero failure rate to begin with. And even if the Defense Department were willing to do a deal with a cellular company to enable cellular service somewhere, it can’t take the Cellco’s money; the dollars would flow to the Treasury, so there’s absolutely no incentive for the DoD (let alone the people who work for it) to come to some arrangement.

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