June 14, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Google lobbies for 'open' wireless networks
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As part of a congressionally mandated switchover to digital television broadcasts, the federal government is preparing to auction off a generous chunk of the 700MHz broadcast TV band by early next year. Wireless companies are eager to bid on it because its signals can travel farther and easily penetrate walls--qualities that lend themselves to widespread, wireless broadband networks.
But a key question, set to be discussed at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Thursday morning, is whether open access rules--a close cousin of last year's legislative tussles over Net neutrality--should be levied on at least some of the companies that win licenses through the auction. In charge of deciding that point is the Federal Communications Commission, which is still finalizing its rules for the proceeding.
That has led to a renewal of old alliances. On one side are last year's Net neutrality proponents, including liberal advocacy groups, wireless technologists and companies like Google, which say that federal regulators must step in and impose "open access" rules. Otherwise, they claim, only a few powerful companies will control this prized chunk of spectrum.
On the other side are the telecommunications giants such as AT&T that blocked extensive Net neutrality rules in the House of Representatives and the Senate last year--and are invoking the same free-market arguments a second time. An AT&T filing with the FCC, for instance, says one Google proposal should be rejected because the market will determine how spectrum should be used.
Advocates affiliated with the pro-Net neutrality Save the Internet lobby group wrote in a recent letter to the FCC: "If the FCC simply gives the highest bidder exclusive rights over the new airwaves, phone and cable companies could become permanent gatekeepers of the airwaves--continuing their record of keeping new competition and innovation out of the marketplace."
Google has also been pressing the FCC to reserve a portion of that spectrum (the 722-728MHz band) to be used primarily or exclusively for broadband communications. Final comments on that proposal were due on Wednesday. (Google did not answer all questions posed by CNET News.com about its auction stance on Wednesday, but a representative did send a statement saying, "the FCC should be adopting flexible rules that encourage competitive entry by new and innovative broadband companies.")
Participants in the broader open access effort include the advocacy groups Public Knowledge, MoveOn.org and the Media Access Project, along with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig. More than 250,000 people submitted comments to the FCC calling for an "open, accessible and affordable" Internet, the group says.
Also in the open access camp is Frontline Wireless, a start-up backed by major Silicon Valley venture capitalists that has proposed a controversial plan to build a public safety network on those airwaves.
Old alliances reunite
Although their individual positions differ on some points, they all generally want the FCC to guarantee that at least a portion of the new spectrum is made available at "fair-market" wholesale prices to anyone who wants to use it. They also want regulators to require that users have the freedom to connect the devices of their choosing to the network, so long as they abide by a "do no harm" mantra.
"This would be a way of getting people who might not be able to afford to bid on spectrum to get into the game," said Art Brodsky, a spokesman for Public Knowledge.
It would also prevent more powerful companies from "warehousing" valuable unused spectrum that could be used by competitors to provide additional services, his group and its allies have argued.
Some groups would like to take the open access idea even further. A group of 15 wireless industry entrepreneurs led by Virgin Mobile USA co-founder Amol Sarva is asking the FCC to set aside one sixth of commercial spectrum as an open "sandbox," where smaller entrepreneurs and inventors can play with new ideas without having to get permission from one of the "big four" network operators--AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile.
"Having to engage with the Big 4 at each cycle in the process can slow time to market and increase risks and costs for the entrepreneur," the group, Wireless Founders for Innovation Coalition, said in a letter to the FCC (PDF) last week.
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