FCC: Free Broadband for All?

It's always interesting to see what lawsuits and proposed legislation can do in nudging the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) into action. The latest example is FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's idea for yet another spectrum auction.

This one would have an interesting twist: the winning bidder would be required to offer free broadband service to 50 percent of the United States within four years and 95 percent of the country within 10 years. The airwaves up for auction would include 25MHz in the 2155-2180MHz advanced wireless services band.

Martin didn't have to look very far for this idea.

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 the FCC lease the spectrum to the company in return for 5 percent of the gross receipts. The FCC said no--auctions only, please--and M2Z headed to court to challenge the ruling.

Just last month, 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.

Thus motivated by a pending lawsuit and legislation, Martin has less than boldly stepped forward.

"We've had a variety of proposals that had come into the commission originally where some people wanted us to give them the spectrum," said Martin, almost shuddering at the thought.

Of course, the real issue here is who will bid in this auction in hopes of building a wireless broadband network that is advertising-supported and family-friendly. Eshoo clearly signaled she hopes it is not AT&T or Verizon.

"The results of the 700 MHz auction disappointed many of us who hoped that a new entrant would emerge," she 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."