April 5, 2021
This paper was published in partnership with the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies and its Philanthropication thru Privatization project.
At a time when the pandemic has made the nation painfully aware of the digital divides that are widening inequality, slowing productivity, and impeding digital innovation, is our practice of dumping the proceeds from the privatization of the public airwaves into the federal treasury, as is now routinely done, the best use of this precious public resource?
The answer, we believe, is decidedly NO. Instead, the nation should dedicate a sizable share of spectrum auction proceeds to closing these digital equity gaps and should establish a reliable, proven vehicle to pursue this task.
Experience in this country and abroad suggests that an endowed, independent, and private charitable foundation would best have the flexibility, research focus, long-term time perspective, and ability to engage other partners that such a mission will require. This experience emerges from the success around the world of a strategy known as “philanthropication thru privatization,” or PtP for short.
This Concept Note explores the possibility of applying this PtP concept to create an independent Digital Futures Foundation endowed with a substantial portion of the windfall proceeds from future, and possibly even recently concluded, spectrum auctions. To do so, the discussion proceeds in four parts.
- Part I provides a brief primer on spectrum and its regulation, particularly in the United States.
- Part II then examines the forces driving the expansion of broadband spectrum demand and the implications this has for the generation of spectrum-derived auction revenues.
- In Part III we examine some of the precedents for channeling the proceeds of spectrum auctions into public-purpose uses.
- Finally, Part IV lays out the case for applying the PtP concept to endow a private Digital Futures Foundation to invest in the significant advancements in public-purpose applications and services needed to close the various digital equity gaps for the benefit of all the American people.