Property Rights and Wireless License Values

51 Journal of Law & Economics 563-98 (August 2008).  Thomas W. Hazlett, Professor of Law & Economics, George Mason University School of Law.

While extending the scope of spectrum property rights promotes efficiency, such reforms are often deterred by equity concerns. Theoretically, however, the windfalls may be negative. Relaxing license restrictions may increase profits by allowing enhanced productivity, yet liberalization across a class of licensees can reduce the expected profits by increasing competitiveness. This article examines license value changes for regimes that decisively shift toward private property rights in radio spectrum by analyzing the average prices paid in international cellular phone license auctions during 1995–2001. This unique data set encompasses 1,365 licenses assigned by competitive bidding in 38 auctions held in 24 countries. Licenses awarded by regimes with more expansive spectrum property rights generated winning bids that were 61 percent lower, adjusting for other factors. This evidence reverses the equity argument against liberalization over the policy margin studied and is consistent with Coase’s view that property rights lower retail prices, thereby increasing efficiency.

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