Martin Revises Free Internet Proposal

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin still hopes to gain agency approval of his controversial proposal to impose a free wireless broadband mandate on the FCC's next spectrum auction. After objections from advocacy groups, Martin drops the idea of requiring the auction winner to filter out pornography and other objectionable material. Congress and the Bush administration still have objections.

Outgoing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin hopes to force a vote on his controversial proposal to impose a free wireless broadband mandate on the FCC's next spectrum auction by dropping a requirement that the network filter out pornography and other objectionable material.

Under Martin's plan, the winning bidder of 25MHz in the 2,155 to 2,180MHz advanced wireless services band would be required to provide a free wireless broadband tier to 50 percent of the United States in four years and 95 percent of the country within 10 years. The proposed free broadband network would support itself by advertising and offering faster speeds on pay tiers.

Martin's original proposal also included a mandate that the winning bidder make the network family-friendly by filtering out objectionable material, but Martin told Ars Technica Dec. 29 that he is now willing to drop the idea after a number of advocacy groups that otherwise support the proposal objected on free speech grounds.

"I'm saying if this is a problem for people, let's take it away," Martin told Ars Technica. "A lot of public interest advocates have said they would support this, but we're concerned about the filter. Well, now there's an item in front of the Commissioners and it no longer has the filter. And I've already voted for it without the filter now. So it's already got one vote."

That, though, may not be enough to rally support for the proposal while Martin, a Republican appointed by President Bush, still holds office.

Martin, who is expected to resign after President-elect Barack Obama takes office, cancelled a scheduled Dec. 18 FCC vote on the proposal after Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the incoming chairman of the Senate Commerce and Science Committee, and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who will be heading the House Energy and Commerce Committee, co-signed a letter to Martin stating it would be "counterproductive" to vote on "complex and controversial items that the new Congress and new administration will have an interest in reviewing."

A day after receiving the letter, Martin's office quietly tabled the vote.

"We received the letter from Senator Rockefeller and Congressman Waxman today and spoke with other offices," Robert Kenny, an FCC spokesperson, said in a Dec. 12 statement. "In light of the letter, it does not appear that there is consensus to move forward and the agenda meeting has been canceled. The items will remain on circulation and the Commissioners can still vote on them."

In a Dec. 10 letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, (PDF) Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez urged Martin to reconsider the proposal in light of the Bush administration's position that spectrum should be allocated by markets rather than governments.

"The history of FCC spectrum auctions has shown that the potential for problems increases in instances where licensing is overly prescriptive or designed around unproven business models," Gutierrez wrote. "In contrast, open and highly competitive auction processes have supported both greatly expanded broadband services and the taxpayers' interests in spectrum license allocation."

Martin first proposed the free Internet idea in May but ran into stiff opposition from incumbent wireless carriers worried about interference with their own networks. In particular, T-Mobile, which paid $4 billion to win the airwaves adjacent to the spectrum that will be up for auction, fiercely opposes Martin's plan.

But an FCC engineering report released Oct. 11 concluded that two-way broadband service in the spectrum would not cause harmful interference to wireless services of other carriers.

"The analysis shows that ... [a] device operating in close proximity does not necessarily result in interference," the FCC report (PDF) stated. "And when factoring in actual operation under nonstatic conditions, the situation only improves."

Martin's plan closely mirrors a 2005 proposal by Silicon Valley startup M2Z Networks. 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. M2Z now says it is now willing to bid on the spectrum. The company is backed by Silicon Valley powerhouse venture capitalist Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

AT&T and Verizon have also opposed the auction plan, as have CTIA, the carriers' principal trade association, and several Republican members of Congress. In addition to interference concerns, the carriers have raised questions about M2Z's ability to raise the capital needed to build a nationwide wireless network.

Other members of Congress, though, have shown an interest in the M2Z proposal, with Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Chris Cannon (R-Utah) introducing legislation that would require the FCC to auction fallow spectrum (such as the 2155 to 2180MHz band) to provide free, filtered broadband for 95 percent of the country within 10 years.

"The results of the 700MHz auction disappointed many of us who hoped that a new entrant would emerge," Eshoo said in an April 16 statement. "Seventy percent of the spectrum auctioned went to only two carriers. While the auction required under this legislation is open to anyone, it is my hope that the bold conditions of requiring free, family-friendly service will encourage the entry of a new kind of national broadband service provider."

John Muleta, CEO and founder of M2Z Networks, said Oct. 10 after the FCC report on interference was issued, "All of the policy and technical benchmarks have now been met and all that is needed is an affirmative vote by the FCC commissioners so that this spectrum can be auctioned and be put into productive use as quickly as possible."