Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society and the Manhattan Institute
Should spectrum be treated as property or a commons?
Saturday, March 1 and Sunday, March 2, 2003
Stanford Law School, Stanford, CA, USA

Video and audio archives of Spectrum Allocation: Property or Commons are now available in the Schedule section of the site.

Spectrum policy is undergoing a fundamental reorientation in the United States and elsewhere. An emerging consensus holds that the traditional system of governmentally-allocated spectrum rights inhibits innovation and competition. The central question now facing policy makers is what form of spectrum management should replace the existing system. These issues will be discussed and debated at:

Spectrum Policy:
Property or Commons?
Stanford Law School
Stanford, California
Saturday, March 1 and Sunday, March 2, 2003

Sponsored by
Thomas Hazlett, the Manhattan Institute, and
Lawrence Lessig of the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society

Wireless innovations are changing the way we live.

We are evolving from the wired world to a wireless one, where information is exchanged seamlessly through the air we breathe. Wi-Fi, drive-by infofueling, location enabled systems and "mesh-style" networks—the possibilities are limited only by the limits on innovation.

An emerging consensus holds that one of the greatest limits on innovation is the government's method of allocating portions of electromagnetic spectrum. Since its discovery, small chunks of spectrum have been auctioned off to the highest bidder, or given away to commercial interests in exchange for their submission to government regulation. Laws prohibit the resale of spectrum, which means that unused spectrum cannot be transferred to others who want it, and is therefore wasted.

As a result, would-be innovators never know if spectrum will be available for their new inventions. Consequently, they can't factor it into a business plan, or build new wireless applications in their garage knowing that the necessary spectrum will be available to their future customers.

In an effort to encourage innovation, critics of the current model have proposed radical - and radically different -- reforms. Some say spectrum should be treated like 'property', giving purchasers the same rights afforded any property owner, including the right to exclude others from using it, and the right to transfer ownership. In contrast, proponents of a 'commons' model argue that spectrum is like a stream that belongs to all of us, and that current technological innovations allow sharing of the resource—a practical, not moral, argument.

Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase criticized the FCC's spectrum policy in 1959, arguing that rules preempting private ownership of spectrum led to catastrophic inefficiencies in the market. Both the 'property' and 'commons' proponents claim that Coase's theory supports their model, and that each view best promotes market efficiency and innovation.

At "Spectrum Policy: Property or Commons?" leading figures in this debate will explain their views on today's wireless technology and market conditions, and discuss the complex implications of the competing models. Then they'll debate their positions before a blue ribbon panel of judges: renowned economist Harold Demsetz, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski, and Dr. Vernon Smith, the Recipient Nobel Prize for Economics, in 2002 of George Mason University.

The aim of the day will be to explore both paradigms, their relationships to the work of Ronald Coase, and the vital unanswered questions facing the future of spectrum management.