Clock Ticking on FCC's Free Wireless Broadband Plan

The deadline is nearing for a possible Federal Communications Commission proposal to require the winner of its spectrum auction to offer a free broadband network supported by advertising. Incumbent wireless carriers like T-Mobile claim unpaired Time Division Duplexing or paired Frequency Division Duplexing operations in the 2.1GHz spectrum cannot exist without substantial interference.

The Federal Communications Commission is facing a September deadline to decide if the agency wants to hold a spectrum auction requiring the winner to offer free broadband service to 50 percent of the United States within four years and 95 percent of the country within 10 years.

Not surprisingly, incumbent wireless carriers, in particular T-Mobile, are opposed to the idea and are asking the FCC to delay any decision, citing unresolved interference concerns. Two lawmakers, however, are accusing the carriers of "unnecessary and unprecedented testing delays to prevent new innovative competitors from entering the market."

Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said in an Aug. 7 letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, "We are concerned that unnecessary interference testing would needlessly delay this auction and that this constitutes the very rationale to kill this effort totally."

Under Martin's plan, the winning bidder would build an advertising-supported network that would filter out pornography on the free-access part of the network. In addition, the FCC wants to impose an open access requirement on the spectrum, allowing any device or software to plug into the network.

T-Mobile claims the new network would create interference in its planned 3G service that would run next door to the FCC's proposed free network. AT&T and Verizon have also opposed the auction plan, as have the CTIA, the carriers' principal trade association, and several Republican members of Congress, who want the spectrum auctioned off to the highest bidder with no restrictions.

According to T-Mobile's FCC filing, unpaired TDD (Time Division Duplexing) or paired FDD (Frequency Division Duplexing) operations in the 2.1GHz spectrum cannot exist without substantial interference.

But Markey and Eshoo pointed out in their letter to Martin (PDF) that the British Office of Communications examined TDD/FDD interference issues in the 2500MHz band in April and concluded, "Both services can operate on adjacent spectrum without causing substantial interference."

In 2005, a Silicon Valley startup known as M2Z Networks proposed building a free network in the 2155-2175MHz band. The catch, though, was M2Z didn't want to bid on the spectrum. Instead, M2Z proposed that the FCC lease the spectrum to the company in return for 5 percent of the gross receipts. The FCC said no: Auctions only, please.

In April, Eshoo and Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, introduced legislation that would require the FCC to auction fallow spectrum (like the 2155-2180MHz band, for instance) to provide free broadband for 95 percent of the country within 10 years. Eshoo and Cannon want the spectrum to be free and used as a "family-friendly" network.