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Thomas Hazlett, Former FCC Chief Economist, Seeks to Understand the Law and Economics of Media Regulation



August 25, 2020 — Thomas Hazlett, an American economist whose research focuses heavily on regulatory measures within the communications sector, was researching cable television when his interest was peaked on broadcasters’ use of the airwaves.

Hazlett, who had earned his Ph.D. in economics from UCLA in 1984, recounted that in the 1980s, “I wrote a chapter for a book about broadcasting that was never published,” describing an ironic start to his otherwise extremely fruitful career in the academic understanding of the communications industry.

“Radio and television are inherently political,” said Hazlett during a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday, as part of Broadband Breakfast’s “Champions of Broadband” series. “Broadcast has historically been regulated politically.”

Thus began Hazlett’s career at the intersection of broadcasting and wireless, cable and media regulation. He began teaching economics at the University of California at Davis, and has taught at progressively more elite universities, including Wharton, Columbia, George Mason University School of Law. He now runs the Information Economy Project at Clemson University.

In 1991, Hazlett was elevated from academia to the Federal Communications Commission under the George H.W. Bush Administration. In his position as chief economist, he was the main economic advisor to the agency’s chairman.

“You see a lot and learn a lot as chief economist at the FCC,” said Hazlett, in an interview with the Clemson Newsstand. “You witness the good and bad, from the work of dedicated and knowledgeable professionals who try to do the right thing to the structure of a perverse system that stymies their every attempt to advance the radio spectrum, so that it serves the public’s best interests.”

His position at the FCC drove Hazlett to focus more directly about the intersections of communications and economics.

Following his time as chief economist to the FCC, Hazlett became a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute from 1998 to 2001, and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute from 2001 to 2005.

Eight years after founding the Information Economy Project and teaching as a professor of law and economics at George Mason University, Hazlett in 2013 moved the research center to Clemson University in South Carolina.

Regulation of the radio spectrum has little to do with ‘chaos on the airwaves’

Throughout his years working in the communications sector, Hazlett authored several books touching on communications regulation, on the subjects of cable, municipal broadband, the internet, and more.

Hazlett is particularly interested in the regulation of spectrum. He most recently released a book in May 2017, entitled The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone.

Hazlett pins the roots of current spectrum regulation issues to regulations established by The Radio Act of 1927, the brainchild of Herbert Hoover, which he finds limits innovation and consumers’ spectrum rights.

“The interpretation of the regulatory structure had little to do with chaos on the airwaves,” said Hazlett, who argues the move was the result of pressure by incumbent radio stations and key policy makers aiming to foreclose competitive entry.

In the book, Hazlett critiques the idea that government control of spectrum was inevitable. He further disregards the idea that the government does a good job regulating the spectrum market.

Instead, Hazlett argues that outdated regulation has stymied the advancement of wireless communication through the enforcement of Hoover-era regulations, hindered by political interests.

“Despite wireless technology’s staggering growth, the bygone-era regulations have led to underutilized frequency space, which has far-reaching consequences,” said Hazlett.

Today, the system Hazlett described as “anti-consumer and anti-competitive,” has begun to loosen up.

“Wireless has taken off,” said Hazlett, “part of this is due to relaxation of some regulatory rules.”

Hazlett believes going forward, regulators should find much better ways to allocate spectrum, especially as the FCC is set to hold the largest auction of unlicensed spectrum in history in December, to meet increased spectrum demands for Wi-Fi.

“Let the consumers decide the market,” argued Hazlett, saying “that’s what we need to move towards, to getting spectrum to its highest uses.”

As of yet, Hazlett believes American spectrum is “all tied up in a regulatory proceeding.”

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Temporary FCC Spectrum Auction Bill Clears House Committee

An identical bill passed the Senate in September.



Screenshot of Rep. John Joyce, R-Pennsylvania, at the House Energy and Commerce Committee markup on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON, December 5, 2023 – The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday cleared a bill that would allow the Federal Communications Commission to issue already auctioned spectrum licenses. An identical bill passed the Senate in September.

The FCC’s authority to auction off spectrum and issue licenses expired for the first time in March. At that time the commission had auctioned 8,000 licenses in the 2.5 GigaHertz band for 5G networks, but had yet to issue them.

The 5G SALE Act, introduced in September by Rep. John Joyce, R-Pennsylvania, would give the FCC authority to release those licenses, allowing winners to expand their service areas.

The bill will now go to the full House for a vote.

FCC commissioners have been pushing for a full reinstatement of their auction authority, but supported the stopgap bill at an oversight hearing held by the committee on November 30. 

“The licensees deserve to get access to that spectrum,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said at the hearing. “You’re going to hopefully expedite the day when they do.”

T-mobile would see the biggest expansion if the bill becomes law. It spent over $300 million on 7,156 licenses in the band.

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Defense Study Says Sharing Lower 3 GHz Band Not Currently Possible: NTIA

NTIA head Alan Davidson told lawmakers the unpublished study says sharing in the band is not currently feasible.



Screenshot of NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson at Tuesday's hearing.

WASHINGTON, December 5, 2023 – A Department of Defense study on the lower 3 gigahertz band has found the agency cannot currently share the spectrum with commercial users, National Telecommunications and Information Administration Administrator Alan Davidson told lawmakers on Tuesday.

The spectrum has been eyed by industry for use in 5G networks. A trade group representing wireless carriers published a report in August arguing that 150 MHz of the 350 MHz band could be shared with commercial users without jeopardizing national security.

Davidson said the DOD’s report leaves open the possibility of sharing in the future if certain conditions are met, but makes clear the spectrum can’t be opened up in the near future. 

“The answer is no right now. They’ve not seen a way forward on that. And we think their technical work in that area is strong,” he said.

The report was mandated by the 2021 Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act and has been on the NTIA’s desk since late September. The agency has been working to brief lawmakers on the findings, some of which are classified, but was not able to do so before Tuesday’s House oversight hearing, Davidson said.

As outlined by the Biden administration’s spectrum plan, the NTIA will continue to study opening the band in the future. The two options for that, Davidson said, are changes that would make sharing possible or moving a government system to another band. That and other studies are set to be completed within two years.

“There are no easy answers here,” he said. “But we felt the band was too important to give up.”

The NTIA has been looking into the band for years, since a report on its potential for commercial use was mandated by a 2015 law. Under that law, the Federal Communications Commission is supposed to use the agency’s findings to auction off licenses allowing use of the band’s spectrum by summer 2024. 

The FCC’s ability to carry out such an auction expired in March after Congress failed to extend it, in part because of concerns over auctioning sensitive bands like the lower 3 GHz.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee cleared in May a bill that would reinstate that authority. That bill would allow for, but not mandate, an auction of the lower 3 GHz band.

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NTIA Confirms Licensed-by-Rule May Apply for BEAD Funding

The move is a win for wireless providers, who have been pushing the NTIA on the issue.



Photo of telecom towers by Andrew Hart.

WASHINGTON, November 17, 2023 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has moved to confirm some wireless technology will be included in its $42.5 billion broadband grant program. 

The agency clarified it will define fixed wireless broadband provided through “licensed-by-rule” spectrum as reliable. That makes providers using that spectrum eligible for funding if fiber is too expensive, and protects them from overbuilding by other projects under the program.

The move is a win for wireless providers, who have been pushing the NTIA to move on the issue since it released the notice of funding opportunity for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program in 2022.

When the BEAD guidelines were first published, they only marked broadband provided via licensed spectrum – frequency bands designated by the Federal Communications Commission for use by a single provider – as reliable broadband. 

That meant areas receiving broadband through only unlicensed spectrum – bands set aside for shared use – would be open for BEAD-funded projects from other providers. This is still the case under the clarified rules.

The original guidelines would also put systems like the Citizens Broadband Radio Service in a gray zone. The CBRS uses a tiered license system, with government users, priority license holders, and general users sharing 150 megahertz of spectrum. Each tier gets preference over the one below it, meaning a general access user cannot, for example, interfere with a government system.

Some broadband providers use that spectrum on a general access basis to provide internet service. They were initially marked in the FCC’s broadband data with the same code as fully licensed spectrum, 71. But when the FCC added in January a new technology code specific to licensed-by-rule spectrum, 72, it became unclear how the technology would be treated by the BEAD program.

The NTIA cleared up any confusion on November 9, issuing an updated version of its FAQs specifying the new technology code would be treated as reliable broadband, and thus both eligible for BEAD dollars and protected from overbuilding. 

The agencies did not go so far as to comment on the merits of the technology, though, saying in its new FAQ section that it would treat licensed-by-rule as reliable because it was originally classified under 71, with fully licensed spectrum.

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