Surf and turf wars in Silicon Valley

But for those of us who made the trip to Silicon Valley’s Quadrus Conference Center on Sand Hill Road, the discussion was anything but boring. Quite the opposite, in fact, since the topics being hashed out are critical to the future of the Valley.

Chief among those topics was spectrum, specifically the best way to make more airwaves available for mobile broadband. By happenstance, the Pepperdine event coincided with the news that Instagram was launching new video capabilities, dubbed Instavine on social media as it was launched to compete with Twitter’s video platform, Vine. As this news lit up Twitter, I asked the panel how video from Instragram’s billion-plus users will affect wireless networks.

“[It] will create a larger load,” AT&T’s Richard Clarke replied. “We’re swimming fast, but the current is moving far faster.”

This demand for ever-increasing amounts of data (the “current” that Clarke spoke of) is driving carriers to pursue more wireless spectrum. The FCC plans to auction off 300 MHz of new spectrum to these wireless companies, but the panelists — including Harvard Business Review’s Larry Downes, Navigant Economics’ Hal Singer, and Pepperdine’s James Prieger — were doubtful that the full 300 MHz will ever reach the auction podium.

Put another way, the FCC’s efforts will only go so far, and unless the commission also eases restrictions on the secondary market transactions for spectrum, shortcomings will continue to exist. And these shortcomings, the panelists were sure to point out, could have a very real effect on the health of the wireless industry.

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While no one believes the FCC should get out of the spectrum regulation business, there was broad agreement at the event that the commission needed to rethink its definition of public interest when it comes to the airwaves. Mobile broadband has been such a game changer, smartphones and tablets so explosively popular, that the current definition of public interest for spectrum is quickly falling out of step with consumer interests.

Singer in particular opined that the FCC should focus less on antitrust laws in its approach to regulation and instead focus more protecting consumers, a role they are uniquely qualified to fill.

Singer’s point has implications for spectrum policy. By focusing on consumer protections, the FCC can avoid the pitfalls of micromanaging their upcoming spectrum auction. By making the auctions open to all wireless carriers regardless of their size, the commission will not place itself in the undesirable position of picking winners and losers in a thriving and highly competitive market. Will keeping auctions open, along with the FCC staying within its regulatory lanes, best serve consumer interests? At the Pepperdine event, the answer was a definite yes.

Montgomery is executive director of CALinnovates, a coalition advocating for common sense public policy in D.C. on behalf of California’s tech community.