Every year here, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), I hear milling crowds of multicultural geeks talking about "spectrum." I've written entire CES dispatches about "spectrum" without knowing what it really is. I mean, I have a sense of what it is. I know it's everywhere, like God's grace, or karma.
Sometimes, I envision spectrum as a sci-fi device, a miasma or force field that secretly twists and turns the affairs of hapless humans. Other times, it appears to me as a mist, a fog, or as a global chain of rainbows, unseen but spreading in all directions, linked together like a medieval suit of armor -- a sort of meteorological magic trick tinged with mysticism but sullied by greed.
The greed nudges its way in because spectrum is the medium that carries -- I have no idea how -- wireless electronic signals, and wireless electronic signals are, of course, the pot of gold at the end of all those rainbows. Spectrum's profit potential was first understood, I think, with the arrival of broadcast television, which is impossible without it, is lifted up on the wings of spectrum and carried hither and yon over the river and through the woods. When I was a kid, though I knew not, every episode of I Love Lucy traveled on tendrils of spectrum that were snagged by the claw-like bars of TV antennae on millions of roofs and re-directed down palpable, earthbound wires to the Philco wonder-box in the living room.
I don't really understand spectrum, but I do know that it's everywhere and it's finite. There's enough spectrum to go around, bestowing wealth wherever it flows, but it has to be shared. I recall a fat kid named Philip at my grade school, St. Mary's, who was acutely aware of those rare, joyous days on which the dessert in the cafeteria was banana cream pie. On those days, Philip would skip the Spanish rice, the butter sandwiches, and the over-boiled peas. He headed straight to the dessert rack, piling 10 or 12 portions onto his lunch tray and hurrying to a remote corner of the cafeteria to devour his bounty in a frenzy of gluttony and flying whipped cream. Inevitably, there were polite girls and first-graders at the tail of the lunch queue who, because of Philip, never ever knew there was banana cream pie that day.
So it might very well be with spectrum and its potential users -- now extending to mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and myriad related wireless devices and networks -- if not for the prudent intervention of Uncle Sam. Once spectrum had been identified as a sort of natural resource, the US government decided, correctly, that it is something that belongs to everybody, like America's public lands, and that it needs both protection and grownup stewardship, like Yellowstone National Park or the Grand Canyon.
For obvious reasons, spectrum is always an issue here, at CES. So is government. It's a tradition here, on Day One, for Gary Shapiro, the charmer who heads the Consumer Electronics Association, to deliver a few nasty digs at the intrusiveness and superfluity of government regulation in a free market that would be -- Shapiro insists -- so much more "innovative" and lucrative if only the damn government would, please, shrivel up and die.
But then, ironically, the next day, Shapiro sits down on stage with the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) -- currently Julius Genachowski -- and cajoles him to favor the CE industry in his judgments and to be generous in his apportionment of banana cream pie... er, spectrum.
Right now, spectrum is a hot issue all over again because broadcast television doesn't need as much pie as it used to need. Broadcast TV is shrinking in the market, and a lot of TV is piped into homes by cable and satellite. TV antennae are becoming collector's items, and spare spectrum is available. It's also coveted, because so many "consumers" (the CES word for "people") are using it to text and tweet, play games, watch porn, and otherwise shield their fast-atrophying brains from literate, intelligent pastimes.
CEA chief Shapiro actually favors the idea of fair trade in spectrum. He fears the intrusion of Philip into the lunch line because a spectrum hog monopolizing the banana cream would be bad karma indeed. It could shut dozens -- hundreds -- of companies out of the free use and exploitation of spectrum, leading to an era of spectrum tyranny, in the hands of a greedy few. A free and fair market could come to resemble the days of Ma Bell, and CES might turn into a shrunken, feudal flea market of same-old same-old.
The reality that is conventionally dismissed in the libertarian glibness of anti-gov Gary, and his ilk, is that no free market anywhere operates prosperously without the benevolent massage of government regulators whose mission -- and their contribution to capitalism (an ideology that refuses to admit the importance of anything quite so touchy-feely) -- is fairness.