Economist Thomas Hazlett targets bygone wireless regulations in new book
CLEMSON — As a former chief economist for the Federal Communications Commission, Thomas Hazlett witnessed the good, bad and ugly of the agency that regulates our nation’s airwaves.
Hazlett, Clemson University’s Hugh Macaulay Endowed Chair of Economics, shares those insights in his recently released book, “The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone” (Yale University Press, 2017).
“You see a lot and learn a lot as chief economist at the FCC,” said Hazlett. “As a consultant to the agency’s chairman, 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.”
Hazlett’s book opens with a history of the wireless spectrum from radio’s early days to the smart phone. He contends outdated regulation has stymied advancement of wireless communication through its enforcement of cumbersome Hoover-era regulations that are mired in politics and in dire need of an overhaul.
He pins the root of the problem to regulations established by The Radio Act of 1927 that have hamstrung the airwaves and in the process limited innovation and consumers’ access to news, information, public service and arts and culture.
“Though the collar has been loosened somewhat from the Hoover-era regulations, many still remain and as a result the radio spectrum continues to suffer 90 years later. Instead of serving the public interest, our regulatory system is actually limiting it,” Hazlett said.
Communications technology has long outgrown the regulatory system that calls its shots, according to Hazlett, who served as chief economist at the FCC in 1991-92.
He said today more than 6 billion people own wireless phones. “In other words, more people today own cell phones than own toothbrushes or have access to working toilets,” he said.
Despite wireless technology’s staggering growth, the bygone-era regulations have led to underutilized frequency space, which has far-reaching consequences.
“It’s reining in entrepreneurial ventures and restricting market rivalry, which gives way to monopolies,” he said. “In the process, consumers are being punished on many fronts, not the least of which is free speech.”
Though people are constrained in severe ways by the system’s regulatory dysfunction, Hazlett said progress does result and good ideas have traversed through the system.
“There has been a historical arch in the last 30 years where a regulatory liberalization has moved the needle on modernizing the wireless world,” Hazlett said. “The advent of the smart phone and a myriad of social media platforms are only a start. We have seen visionary ideas and competitive enterprises spread and thrive during that time, but we’re not even halfway there.”
Hazlett advocates loosening the spectrum’s regulatory noose by auctioning off its underutilized capacities. He says that would serve the public by creating economic efficiencies and generate billions of dollars for the government.
“There can be a minimalist approach that gets us to a more flexible path to regulating the spectrum. Once we figure that out, I’m optimistic the wireless world’s potential can be achieved and the public’s interests will be better served.”
Hazlett joined Clemson’s John E. Walker School of Economics in 2014. He has held faculty positions at the University of California-Davis, Columbia University, the Wharton School of Business at Penn and George Mason University Law School. His other book credits include “The Fallacy of Net Neutrality” and “Public Policy Toward Cable Television.”