Property from the sky: The creation of property rights in the radio spectrum in the United States
This dissertation looks at the formation of property rights institutions, using the creation of property rights in the radio spectrum in the United States from 1899 to 1934 as a case study that sheds light on both economic theories of institutional change and current policy debates over spectrum allocation. I first develop a theoretical framework for understanding the creation of property rights, recognizing that property rights can take on diverse forms that distribute the costs and benefits associated with resource use in different ways. This diversity is constrained by five economic factors—resource characteristics, technology, product markets, existing institutions, and ideologies. My historical case study provides compelling empirical support for theories developed by Douglas North and other “New Institutional” economists that stress the importance of existing institutions and ideologies in shaping property rights, placing these factors on an equal level with the first three, which have been the basis of neoclassical property rights theory. I argue that serious consideration of the roles played by existing institutions and ideologies in shaping property rights logically points to the need to redefine current theoretical assumptions about individual economic actors and to incorporate concepts of power into economic analysis. The historical component of my dissertation is based on research at six historical archives. I focus on the economic history of spectrum property rights in the United States before World War I, choosing this time period for two reasons. First, as my research shows, the activities of early commercial wireless firms of this period were crucial in shaping a unique system of spectrum property rights in the United States. Second, the importance of this period in shaping the structure and allocation of spectrum rights has gone largely unrecognized both in the existing radio history literature and in the economic literature on property rights in the spectrum. In the concluding chapter I argue that economic analyses of spectrum property rights must incorporate the distinctive enforcement issues associated with resource characteristics of the radio spectrum, and the public goods attributes of spectrum product markets. Such considerations are important in efforts to preserve and extend public and other non-profit rights not only to the spectrum but also in other areas of telecommunications.
0511: Economic theory
0708: Mass media