Marco Rubio Wants to Sell Off Government Airwaves

The GOP senator plans to introduce a bill to provide more airwaves for cell phones.

Senator Marco Rubio arrives to speak during the American Conservative Union Conference March 6, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland. (National Journal)

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Republican Sen. Marco Rubio plans to introduce legislation to force federal agencies to sell off their wireless frequencies to the highest bidder.

The goal is to provide additional spectrum — the airwaves that carry all wireless signals — to the private sector to speed up smartphone connections. If cellular carriers don't have access to enough spectrum, their networks can become overwhelmed, leading to dropped calls and stalled videos.

"Wireless spectrum now serves the same role as roads and highways," Rubio said in a speech Monday at Google's Washington office outlining his economic agenda. "It is a critical means of conducting commerce and getting our products to market. And if spectrum is the highway of the digital age, we know that this highway is getting crowded, and traffic will only continue to get worse."

His legislation would provide an additional 200 megahertz of spectrum for commercial use, according to a fact sheet provided by his office. Those frequencies could provide an economic boost of up to $35 billion and create as many as 140,000 jobs, his office claimed. But a Rubio spokeswoman did not provide more information about the bill, such as whether the legislation specifies which agencies would have to give up their spectrum.

The federal government currently controls broad portions of spectrum, which it uses for air-traffic control, to monitor weather systems, to allow law-enforcement officers to communicate with each other, and a host of other programs. The largest government user of spectrum is the Defense Department, which uses the airwaves for radio communications, missile guidance, satellite transmissions, and other purposes.

Despite booming commercial demand, federal agencies have been reluctant to give up their spectrum. The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a bipartisan bill last year that would encourage federal agencies to give up their spectrum by giving them a cut of the revenue from the spectrum's auction.

Rubio, an expected 2016 presidential hopeful, touched upon a number of other economic issues in the wide-ranging speech. He plans to introduce a bill to make it formal U.S. policy to oppose international attempts to regulate the Internet. The bill would back the current "multi-stakeholder" model of Internet governance, in which a handful of nonprofits make policy decisions in consultation with businesses and other groups. The House passed similar symbolic legislation last year.

In his speech, Rubio also called for trade-promotion authority for the president, which would make it easier to broker trade deals. He said he wants to streamline regulatory review for natural-gas pipelines and pushed for an overhaul of the tax code that he said would boost U.S. competitiveness.