Here’s a recap of a recent fireside chat “Beauty Contests to Auctions, What is the Next Step?” that marked a significant milestone in the telecommunications industry—the 30th anniversary of the first spectrum auctions. Scott Wallsten had the privilege of moderating this insightful discussion on Monday, January 29, 2024 with two key figures who played instrumental roles in this revolutionary process: Evan Kwerel of the FCC and Paul Milgrom of Stanford University.
The Path to Success
The journey to implementing spectrum auctions was not without its challenges. Evan Kwerel shed light on the initial resistance, particularly from the broadcasting industry and legislators. Concerns about market concentration and the potential costs of spectrum use were at the forefront of the debate. Despite these hurdles, the need for government revenue and the inefficiency of the existing system for cellular licenses were catalysts for change.
A Global Perspective
Paul Milgrom provided a fascinating comparison between the United States and other countries. He noted the fragmented nature of the industry abroad and the various tactics used to suppress auction prices. In contrast, the U.S. wireless companies were less resistant, which played a part in the smoother implementation of spectrum auctions stateside.
The Power of Collaboration
The success of spectrum auctions can be attributed to the unique collaboration between the FCC, industry leaders, and academics. Evan Kwerel highlighted the visionary leadership of the FCC chairman who was open to economic principles and willing to embrace risk. Paul Milgrom pointed out the initial lack of auction expertise within the FCC and the formation of a dedicated task force that worked in tandem with the chairman’s office.
Bipartisan Cooperation: A Rarity in Policy Making
Evan and Paul also touched upon the bipartisan support that was crucial in passing the auction legislation. This kind of across-the-aisle cooperation is rare, and it underscores the importance of assembling a strong, diverse team to navigate the complexities of the auction process.
Key Takeaways and Lasting Impact
Reflecting on the discussion, it’s clear that the implementation of spectrum auctions was a monumental achievement that required overcoming significant opposition, fostering bipartisan cooperation, and leveraging exceptional leadership. The result has been a tremendous consumer surplus and a transformed wireless industry that continues to benefit societies worldwide.
The history of spectrum auctions is not just a tale of policy and economics; it’s a story of innovation, collaboration, and the relentless pursuit of progress.
This fireside chat is one of six events included in TPI’s 2024 Winter Spectrum Series from January to February 2024. Be sure to check out the other events in the series!