Marco Rubio Wants to Sell Off Government Airwaves

The GOP senator plans to introduce a bill to provide more airwaves for cell phones.

Senator Marco Rubio arrives to speak during the American Conservative Union Conference March 6, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.
National Journal
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Brendan Sasso
March 10, 2014, 11:42 a.m.

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Marco Ru­bio plans to in­tro­duce le­gis­la­tion to force fed­er­al agen­cies to sell off their wire­less fre­quen­cies to the highest bid­der.

The goal is to provide ad­di­tion­al spec­trum — the air­waves that carry all wire­less sig­nals — to the private sec­tor to speed up smart­phone con­nec­tions. If cel­lu­lar car­ri­ers don’t have ac­cess to enough spec­trum, their net­works can be­come over­whelmed, lead­ing to dropped calls and stalled videos.

“Wire­less spec­trum now serves the same role as roads and high­ways,” Ru­bio said in a speech Monday at Google’s Wash­ing­ton of­fice out­lining his eco­nom­ic agenda. “It is a crit­ic­al means of con­duct­ing com­merce and get­ting our products to mar­ket. And if spec­trum is the high­way of the di­git­al age, we know that this high­way is get­ting crowded, and traffic will only con­tin­ue to get worse.”

His le­gis­la­tion would provide an ad­di­tion­al 200 mega­hertz of spec­trum for com­mer­cial use, ac­cord­ing to a fact sheet provided by his of­fice. Those fre­quen­cies could provide an eco­nom­ic boost of up to $35 bil­lion and cre­ate as many as 140,000 jobs, his of­fice claimed. But a Ru­bio spokes­wo­man did not provide more in­form­a­tion about the bill, such as wheth­er the le­gis­la­tion spe­cifies which agen­cies would have to give up their spec­trum.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment cur­rently con­trols broad por­tions of spec­trum, which it uses for air-traffic con­trol, to mon­it­or weath­er sys­tems, to al­low law-en­force­ment of­ficers to com­mu­nic­ate with each oth­er, and a host of oth­er pro­grams. The largest gov­ern­ment user of spec­trum is the De­fense De­part­ment, which uses the air­waves for ra­dio com­mu­nic­a­tions, mis­sile guid­ance, satel­lite trans­mis­sions, and oth­er pur­poses.

Des­pite boom­ing com­mer­cial de­mand, fed­er­al agen­cies have been re­luct­ant to give up their spec­trum. The House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee ap­proved a bi­par­tis­an bill last year that would en­cour­age fed­er­al agen­cies to give up their spec­trum by giv­ing them a cut of the rev­en­ue from the spec­trum’s auc­tion.

Ru­bio, an ex­pec­ted 2016 pres­id­en­tial hope­ful, touched upon a num­ber of oth­er eco­nom­ic is­sues in the wide-ran­ging speech. He plans to in­tro­duce a bill to make it form­al U.S. policy to op­pose in­ter­na­tion­al at­tempts to reg­u­late the In­ter­net. The bill would back the cur­rent “multi-stake­hold­er” mod­el of In­ter­net gov­ernance, in which a hand­ful of non­profits make policy de­cisions in con­sulta­tion with busi­nesses and oth­er groups. The House passed sim­il­ar sym­bol­ic le­gis­la­tion last year.

In his speech, Ru­bio also called for trade-pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity for the pres­id­ent, which would make it easi­er to broker trade deals. He said he wants to stream­line reg­u­lat­ory re­view for nat­ur­al-gas pipelines and pushed for an over­haul of the tax code that he said would boost U.S. com­pet­it­ive­ness.


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