Microsoft Corp. traditionally has steered clear of telecommunications regulators and legislators, but the software giant is raising its profile in Washington in a bid to spur rapid deployment of more affordable high-speed networks. The Redmond, Wash., company views faster, cheaper pipes, particularly emerging wireless broadband networks, as a conduit for selling more software applications and services.
The subject of a highly contentious and protracted debate in Washington, broadband deployment policy pits the Regional Bell Operating Companies against most other telecom service providers, including long distance companies, competing local exchange carriers and cable companies. For more than two years, the Bells have waged a vigorous campaign to roll back regulations requiring them to lease rivals access to the “last mile” of the network at regulated rates.
Stepping directly into the middle of the contest, Microsoft chief technical officer Craig Mundie testified Tuesday morning before a panel of U.S. senators overseeing telecommunications policy. As the sole industry representative testifying among policy experts, Mundie told lawmakers that Washington should foster a wireless alternative to telephone and cable broadband offerings by making more spectrum available. However, the spectrum would not go to the large wireless carriers that typically bid for it at Federal Communications Commission auctions but instead would be available for unlicensed use by anyone.
Emerging wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi, WLANs, ultrawide band and software defined radios, offer the potential for deploying broadband connections directly to the consumer via small computing devices, Mundie said, urging lawmakers to prompt the FCC to allocate more spectrum for their use.
Several other panelists at the hearing, including Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, and Michael Price, vice chairman of Evercore Partners Inc. in N.Y., echoed Mundies proposal for more unlicensed spectrum.
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Meanwhile, Sens. George Allen, R-Va., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have been drafting a bill to accelerate the development of wireless broadband technologies. The measure would among other things direct the FCC to make more spectrum available for unlicensed use, establish technical rules for that spectrum and establish “baseline Internet connectivity principles.” Mundie said that the proposed bill is compatible with Microsofts recommendations.
Microsoft also offered support for the Bells campaign for deregulation. The Bells argue that they should not be subjected to last-mile leasing regulations when it comes to broadband services because their main rivals, the cable companies, are not regulated as such. They maintain that the regulatory requirements hinder them from making new investment in high-speed data networks. (The Bells have recently begun lobbying for similar deregulation for voice services as well.) Mundie told lawmakers that Microsoft has sympathy for the Bells argument.
From Microsofts perspective, some cable operators are impeding consumers freedom to connect to the Internet where and when they want to. Some cable contracts restrict users to connecting company-approved equipment with the companys network.
Keeping with the times, Mundie also noted that the telecom policy under consideration is a critical issue for the countrys national security.
Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, who also testified before the Senate panel this morning, said that the government must subsidize broadband deployment because the private sector simply will not make the necessary investment in this economy. “You need to throw money at [the problem],” Hundt said, adding that it would cost taxpayers only a fraction of the cost to build the countrys roads.
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