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
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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