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Selling parts of the radio spectrum could help pare US deficit

The most sought-after portion of the radio spectrum is that used by over-the-air TV broadcasts, but most people now prefer cable or satellite broadcasting

By Richard Thaler  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Hazlett estimates that selling off this spectrum could raise at least US$100 billion for the government and, more important, create roughly US$1 trillion worth of value to users of the resulting services. Those services would include ultrahigh-speed wireless Internet access (including access for schools, of course) much improved cell phone coverage and fewer ugly cell towers. And they would include other new things we can’t imagine any more than we could have imagined an iPhone just 10 years ago.

But some compelling technology that could use these frequencies already exists, like wireless health monitoring — to check diabetics’ blood sugar regularly, for example — and remote robotic surgery that can give a patient in Idaho a treatment like that available in New York or Chicago.

Who would oppose this plan? Local broadcasters are likely to contend that they are providing a vital community service in return for free use of the spectrum that was put in their hands decades ago. Whether the local news or other programs are vital services is up for debate, but their value isn’t the issue, because they can be made available via cable, satellite and other technologies, including improved broadband.

Say there are 10 million households that still get their television over the air, including those that can’t afford cable or satellite and some that generally just don’t care for what’s on TV. (Yes, there are people who don’t like American Idol.) But about 99 percent of these households have cable running near their homes, and virtually all the others, in rural areas, could be reached by satellite services. The FCC could require cable and satellite providers to offer a low-cost service that carries only local channels, and to give vouchers for connecting to that service to any households that haven’t subscribed to cable or satellite for, say, two years.

Hazlett estimates that US$300 per household should do it: That amounts to US$3 billion at most. Compared with the gains from ­selling off the spectrum, it’s a drop in the bucket. Or, as an interim step, we could reduce the number of channels available in a community from 49 to, say, 5.

I know that this proposal sounds too good to be true, but I think the opportunity is real. And unlike some gimmicks from state and local governments, like selling off proceeds from the state lottery to a private company, this doesn’t solve current problems simply by borrowing from future generations. Instead, by allowing scarce resources to be devoted to more productive uses, we can create real value for the economy.

Economists are fond of saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Here we have an idea that is even better than a free lunch: being paid to eat lunch. More paid-lunch ideas will be coming in future columns.

Richard Thaler is a professor of economics and behavioral science at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.

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