Free Broadband Plan Could Be Back on the Table

As it moves toward the delivery of the national broadband plan, the Federal Communications Commission could be reviving a long-simmering proposal to deliver a nationwide, free broadband network.

By Kenneth Corbin | Posted Mar 11, 2010
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When the Federal Communications Commission delivers its national broadband plan to Congress next week, it will include a litany of recommendations for addressing the demand side of the digital divide. For millions of Americans, broadband service is available, but they simply choose not to subscribe.

But what if it were free?

That could certainly sweeten the deal. Among the proposals to get more people online with high-speed connections that the FCC will suggest in the plan is to "consider use of spectrum for a free or very low-cost wireless broadband service."

If that sounds familiar, there's a reason.

For several years a proposal to do just that—to auction a portion of spectrum to be used for free Internet service—has been on the FCC's docket. The commission came very close to ruling on the matter in December 2008, when then-Chairman Kevin Martin had scheduled the item for a vote in the commission's monthly meeting. But that meeting never happened, as Martin yielded to pressure from lawmakers who urged him to focus the commission's efforts on the upcoming transition to digital television.

Martin resigned from the FCC a month later when President Obama was sworn in.

But now that DTV is behind us and broadband has become the order of the day at the FCC, it seems perfectly plausible that the AWS-3 spectrum auction could resurface on the commission's agenda.

That would be welcome news for M2Z Networks, the Silicon Valley startup that has been backing the proposal, pledging to provide broadband access on the order of 512 Kbps to 95 percent of Americans within 10 years of winning the spectrum.

M2Z CEO John Muleta, the former head of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, rounded up letters of support for the plan from many lawmakers and other interested parties who called on the FCC to approve the plan.

But there are two sides to every story in Washington, and the M2Z proposal sparked heated opposition from T-Mobile, which warned that the broadband network would interfere with its spectrum in adjacent bands.

The FCC conducted a series of tests to gauge the interference issues, and, much like the white spaces testing, the opposing parties came away with different interpretations of the results. For M2Z, the interference issue proved negligible. For T-Mobile, it was a big deal, especially in times of peak calling on its network.

T-Mobile also raised doubts that M2Z could deliver on its build-out schedule for the network, and challenged the propriety of the FCC tailoring conditions of a spectrum auction to one company's business model, arguing that the spectrum could fetch far more in an open auction with no restrictions.

Once the FCC delivers its broadband plan next week, the noise will be intense. It will include recommendations for Congress, agencies, state and local authorities and, of course, the FCC itself.

The FCC will have a host of priorities to juggle as it moves to deliver on the broadband agenda it proposes next Wednesday. There are also a couple spectrum reform bills working their way through Congress—one that would require and inventory and another that would ease the process of reallocation. Then, too, the FCC is also calling for some 500 MHz of spectrum to be freed up for wireless broadband, a move that will inevitably provoke a bitter fight with broadcasters, who are going to be loathe to relinquish their licenses.

Where the AWS-3 proceeding fits into that spectrum overhaul is far from clear. After all, the FCC only suggested that it would "consider" a free or low-cost broadband network, and made no mention of M2Z's proposal.

But the FCC's comments this week were enough to catch the attention of M2Z. In a statement e-mailed to InternetNews.com, Muleta said that his proposal, which would generate revenue through an ad-supported model, is a shortcut to achieving and funding the FCC's goal of universal broadband access and adoption.

"The fastest way and cheapest way would be to use the spectrum auctions with public interest conditions that address the need for a very affordable basic broadband," Muleta said in a statement e-mailed to InternetNews.com.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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