Top Dems Ask FCC to Delay Free Broadband Vote

Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Rep. Henry Waxman, who will chair the committees with FCC oversight in the new Congress, urge FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to focus on the digital television transition in his remaining days in office. The lawmakers said that focus should preclude any vote on a controversial plan to impose a free wireless broadband mandate on the FCC's next spectrum auction until the new Congress and President-elect Barack Obama have had an opportunity to review the plan.

Two Democrats with Federal Communications Commission oversight authority in the U.S. Senate and House asked FCC Chairman Kevin Martin Dec. 12 to postpone the agency's scheduled Dec. 18 vote to impose a free wireless broadband mandate on the FCC's next spectrum auction.

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."

Instead, the lawmakers said, the FCC should focus its attention in Martin's waning days on the digital television transition. Martin, an appointee of President Bush, is expected to resign over the next month or so to clear the way for President-elect Barack Obama's choice of an FCC chairman.

"We strongly urge you to concentrate the Commission's attention and resources only on matters that require action under the law and efforts to smooth the transition to digital television," the lawmakers wrote.

An FCC spokesman confirmed Martin's office had received the letter but had no further comment.

Martin has scheduled a Dec. 18 vote on a controversial spectrum auction plan that would require the winner 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. The free tier of broadband services would be family friendly, with the FCC requiring the winning bidder to filter out pornography.

Under Martin's plan, the airwaves to be auctioned would include 25MHz in the 2,155 to 2,180MHz advanced wireless services band. In addition, the FCC wants to impose an open access requirement on the spectrum, allowing any device or software to plug into the network.

Martin first proposed the 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.

Republicans in Congress also oppose the spectrum auction mandates, preferring the FCC auction the airwaves to the highest bidder with no strings attached. Lame duck Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez stepped into the controversy with a Dec. 10 letter to Martin, urging the FCC chairman 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's plan closely mirrors a 2005 proposal by Silicon Valley start-up 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.

John Muleta, CEO and founder of M2Z Networks, said Dec. 11 the FCC should move ahead with the vote, blasting the Bush administration for "years of failed policy initiatives that benefit corporate interests." Muleta said the need for affordable and widely available broadband to stimulate the economy and bridge the digital divide "could not be greater."

Muleta added, "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."

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."