Wireless Carriers: No Free Wireless Broadband for You

Surprise! The nation's wireless carriers, including AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, and their primary trade association and Republican leaders in Congress are all opposing an FCC proposal that would put free wireless broadband in the hands of consumers.

A little-noted July 25 deadline for comments is looming at the Federal Communications Commission. At stake is a plan by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin that would combine two spectrum blocks for auction and require the winning licensee to offer free broadband service to 50 percent of the United States within four years and 95 percent of the country within 10 years.

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.

"I think the business model that we should be advocating is trying to take into account some kind of a lifeline broadband service for consumers," Martin told a House committee June 10. "I think that is important and I continue to believe that that is an important policy."

The nation's wireless carriers do not. T-Mobile, in particular, claims the new network would create interference in its planned 3G service that would run next door to the FCC's proposed 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.

"The commission cannot responsibly reach a decision on the proposal ... without gathering empirical data concerning the interference risks that have been identified," T-Mobile said in a filing with the FCC. T-Mobile spent $4.2 billion in the 2006 AWS (Advanced Wireless Services) auction held by the FCC.

The CTIA claims the FCC is not dealing in good faith with companies like T-Mobile.

"How can the FCC expect investors and the carriers they fund to show up at future auctions and fully utilize their spectrum if they have no confidence that the FCC is an honest broker?" the CTIA said in a June 25 letter to the FCC. "Now the FCC is planning to pull the rug out from under those same licensees by developing new rules that will cause harmful interference to their customers."

Republican Reps. Joe Barton of Texas and Cliff Stearns of Florida have also opposed the plan.

"Placing these conditions would result in the commission choosing winners and losers, as well as denying taxpayers the added revenue the spectrum would likely fetch if auctioned without the conditions," the two lawmakers wrote June 25.(PDF) Barton and Stearns also said the proposed auction is shaped to fit the "business model [of] a single party."

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, Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and 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. The catch? Eshoo and Cannon want the spectrum to be used as a "family-friendly" network.