In a speech at CTIA’s MobileCon on Wednesday, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai talked spectrum – specifically, what has worked (and not worked) in the government’s efforts to free up more airwaves for wireless use.

As many would expect from this Republican member of the Commission, Pai embraces the power of the free market when it comes to providers being able to meet consumer demand for more airwaves. He points out:

Historically, the FCC used comparative hearings — better known as “beauty contests” — or even lotteries to assign licenses. In other words, the agency either had to choose political favorites or leave it to chance — a lose-lose proposition.

The big change, Pai noted, came in 1993, when Congress — and President Clinton — authorized the auction process for spectrum. Calling this move a “win-win,” Pai said:

Not only do [auctions] allocate spectrum more efficiently, but they also have raised over $50 billion for the federal government.

For further proof, Pai focused on two previous auctions — one in 2006, the other 2008 — that together provided 142 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband. And that boost in airwaves, Pai went on to say, has greatly benefited the U.S. as a whole:

How important have these auctions been? They are the main reason why the United States today leads the world in 4G deployment. Verizon Wireless is using the C-Block spectrum it obtained in [2008’s] Auction 73 to roll out 4G LTE service nationwide. AT&T provides 4G services over B-Block spectrum from Auction 73 as well as spectrum from [2006’s] Auction 2006. MetroPCS uses spectrum from Auction 66 to provide 4G LTE service. So does Leap Wireless. And soon, so will T-Mobile.

That’s obviously a lot of wireless expansion — not to mention a healthy boost to competition — from just two auctions, but as Pai himself noted there’s still much work to be done, especially when it comes to closing America’s digital divide. Wired broadband can only reach so many people before it becomes economically unfeasible. That means, if the U.S. is going to achieve the ambitious goal of bringing broadband to every corner of our nation, mobile broadband is the way to go.

According to Pai, the key to making it all happen is for the Commission to stay on the schedule it has already laid out for spectrum auctions. But he added:

I think three principles should [also] guide our work as we set up these auctions. Specifically, we must remain faithful to the legislation. We must be fair to all stakeholders. And we must keep our rules as simple as possible.

That’s exactly right, and I hope Pai and the Commission are able to take lessons from past successes to shape the role that the government should play going forward. Making the goals of the National Broadband Plan reality is simply too important — to the economic health of America, to the promise that everyone in our nation should have an opportunity to succeed — for us to fail. The future of broadband is up in the air, and it will take smart spectrum management and reallocation by the FCC to help tap mobile broadband’s full potential.