Both houses of Congress to debate nationwide free broadband

While the FCC continues to stall and postpone its debate over holding yet another auction for free broadband service spectrum, two bills certain to be debated in both houses of Congress may just get its attention.

After the US Federal Communications Commission's tremendous 700 MHz auction concluded earlier this year, some congresspeople were disappointed that it had not achieved one of its originally promised outcomes: the creation of a free, nationwide broadband service for public safety providers, and even for everyday consumers.

Last April, members of the House of Representatives led by Anna Eshoo (D - Calif.) proposed a remedy: a bill that would mandate the FCC hold another auction. This one sets aside 20 MHz of "unpaired contiguous spectrum" already reserved for Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) , for exclusive use by the winning bidder. That bidder must be willing to provide at least 200 Kbps service (not exactly "broadband" by most folks' estimates), to both public service entities and general consumers, on their choice of premise equipment, to at least 95% of the US population within 10 years, for free.

The FCC had an opportunity to vote on its own measure to hold such an auction, but ended up tabling the measure once again last June. It may still take up the matter later this year, though some in Congress may be under the opinion that it needs incentive to do so.

On August 1, just prior to the (abbreviated) summer recess, Sen. Ron Wyden (D - Oregon) introduced the Senate's version of the same bill, in a move that very likely ensures that both bills will at least receive scrutiny, and not be tabled.

Since this would be a public network, the winning bidder must be willing to "offer such free data service with an option available to the user at the time of initial connection or configuration of a connected device, to have that service filtered by means of a technology protection measure or measures that prevent underage users from accessing obscene or indecent material through such service," according to language in both bills.

And in the spirit of openness, the winner must publish royalty-free specifications for how to build equipment that enables customers to use this service.

"The results of the 700 MHz auction disappointed many of us who hoped that a new entrant would emerge," Rep. Eshoo stated last April. "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."

In an effort to spur the FCC along, the Coalition for Free Broadband Now has published a petition for individuals to send to congresspeople and Commissioners, urging them to support the measure. This Coalition appears comprised, in large part, of M2Z Networks -- an entity that was willing to take the FCC to court last year, for what it claimed was an unfair delay to an initiative in the public interest.

M2Z's plans, which were never really secret, have been to operate a public service network for free, but also a premium service over the same spectrum for subscription fees of $20 - 30 per month. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill only specify free service for 200 Kbps, associating it with the term "broadband" but not placing limits on what other services may be offered commercially.

Arguably, a premium-tier service such as the one M2Z offers may be the only way to make a workable business plan work, given the strict conditions both bills propose.

But M2Z was not one of the bidders in the FCC's 700 MHz auction; if it had bid even the minimum amount, it would have won. It may also have ended up paying unspecified lease fees for D-block spectrum, which not even major prospective bidder Frontline Wireless could have afforded.

As Eshoo bill supporter Rep. Ed Markey (D - Mass.) stated on the House floor following the failure of the D-block auction, "If the Commission [FCC] takes the opportunity to weigh new proposals that correct deficiencies in the previous plan, puts in place barriers to unjust enrichment, clarifies important details prior to a re-auction, and re-calibrates the D-block license conditions to account for what has transpired in the recently-completed auction, the D-block's recent failure to sell may ultimately prove fortuitous."

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