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GPS and the Politics of Scarce Resources

Author: Frank G. Klotz, Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies and Arms Control
April 17, 2012
National Interest

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In the 1960s, David Easton famously defined politics as the authoritative allocation of scarce resources. Today, one of the scarcest resources is radio-frequency spectrum. Modern communications systems—television, radio, cell phones, WIFI—transmit and receive signals using an assigned portion of this invisible domain. If two systems try to use the same "slice" of spectrum at the same time, interference and weak, inaccurate signals can result.

With the proliferation of high-speed, wireless devices, the demand for radio-frequency spectrum has increased dramatically in recent years. The domain's regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is sometimes forced to choose between conflicting claims and competing visions of the common good. And as a recent controversy surrounding a Virginia-based communications company illustrates, spectrum allocation can be an untidy process—and have implications for both national security and global economic infrastructure.

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