They call it the telecom prom: Every year, hundreds of communications lobbyists, lawyers and other hangers-on descend on the Washington Hilton, where the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is expected to crack jokes at everyone's expense in a big speech.
This year's dinner took place against the backdrop of a handful of high-profile policy problems. Among them? How to divvy up the airwaves among the companies charged with carrying your voice calls, text messages and data traffic. In 2015, the FCC is expected to make a whole bunch of new wireless spectrum available to carriers in a massive auction. The government has three objectives: It wants to make a lot of money from this sale; it wants to expand the capacity of the nation's cellular networks, and it also has to make sure that the auction doesn't overly advantage the two largest wireless carriers, Verizon and AT&T.
One idea to keep that from happening is to impose limits on how much spectrum the two top carriers will be allowed to buy. Verizon and AT&T understandably dislike the proposal. They'd prefer to snap up the lion's share of that invisible real estate. But taken to the extreme, that could crowd out smaller carriers such as Sprint and T-Mobile, or even discourage them from participating in the auction altogether. Instituting limits might help make sure there's enough spectrum to go around.
That trade-off is on the mind of the new FCC chair, Tom Wheeler, who must decide in the coming months what rules will govern the auctions. In his gag routine Thursday night, he dropped this groan-worthy joke:
As you've noticed, we've got a good supply of wine here tonight. But it's a limited supply. So, AT&T and Verizon? I'm going to have to ask you to limit. And T-Mobile and Sprint? Go ahead, guys! [Laughter.] But listen. T-Mobile and Sprint — would you show up and buy something?
It's a deplorable stab at comedy. But as an analogy for what's becoming a thorny policy issue? It's not far off.