In a shock ruling ten days ago, the Supreme Court cancelled 122 mobile phone licences that had been deceitfully awarded in 2008. The ruling sent the telecom industry into chaos, confirmed dreadful corruption in the government’s decision-making process, and damaged the reputation of our nation in the eyes of the world—especially foreign investors. There was much euphoria inside the country, however, for justice had seemingly been served.
The Supreme Court also instructed the telecom regulator (TRAI) to auction the illegally gained 2G spectrum, as it was done in the case of 3G spectrum. “While transferring or alienating natural resources, the state is duty bound to adopt the method of auction by giving wide publicity so that all eligible persons can participate,” said the Court judgment. Auctions are certainly a better way to allocate a scare resource than first come first served, but what Mr Raja did was, of course, preposterous — he subverted the “first come first serve” policy by changing rules mid-way; he allocated spectrum out-of-turn in a non-transparent manner, and that too at 2001 prices, thus creating the biggest corruption scandal in India’s history.
But is auctioning the best way to allocate radio spectrum? Although it is scarce, should it used as a money making device by government? Since water is scarce, should it be auctioned? No. The risk in an auction is that “animal spirits” of entrepreneurs forces them to bid very high, which is then reflected in high tariffs, and this forces the poor out of the market. Thirty one countries have used spectrum auctions and many have regretted it for this reason.
In the ideal world, radio spectrum would be like sunshine which is not owned by anyone or any government but everyone enjoys it without any cost. But unlike sunshine, spectrum is finite and hence it has been historically controlled by governments. It is widely accepted that government allocation is inefficient and leads to corruption. Ronald Coase, the Nobel Prize winner, exploded the myth long ago that governments should control spectrum to prevent airwave chaos. Today many experts think of spectrum as a common grazing ground around a village, which is open to everyone to use freely. They claim that new spectrum sharing technologies allow a virtually unlimited number of persons to use it without causing each other interference--this eliminates the need for either property rights or government control. This is why the
If the spectrum were a “commons” nobody would own it nor need to auction it. A telecom company would merely register with an authority, which would assign it a spectrum frequency for its use. When the company reached the limit of its spectrum, the authority would release it some more. Just as a villager pays a nominal tax for maintaining the commons, depending on how many cattle he grazes, each cell phone subscriber would pay a nominal fee, say a paisa per minute, towards upkeep of the spectrum. It would be form a part of the monthly bill, and transferred by the phone company to the authority. Just as a village needs rules to prevent over-grazing, there would be rules in maintaining spectrum to avoid a “tragedy of the commons”. The rules would be transparent, monitored in real time, and no one would be able to corner the spectrum.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court judgment has come out so heavily prescriptive in favour of auctions that future governments in