Bush administration urges FCC to vote against free broadband mandate

Sure, the US government has been in favor of expanding access to free "broadband" service to the masses. But the current administration is opposed to mandates, and there's still enough time to make that opposition stick.

In an open letter to US Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin yesterday, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez repeated the current administration's opposition to the idea of mandating that a portion of the Advanced Wireless Services AWS-3 spectrum being auctioned off next year, be exclusively set aside for businesses that wish to operate no-fee nationwide broadband services.

As it stands now, the winning bidder in the AWS-3 auction must set aside 25% of the capacity it purchases for the implementation of a network with 768 kbps downstream capacity. It's the subject of legislation still before Congress (as one might imagine, there have been other pressing matters of late), which would effectively codify that requirement into law. But there's considerable speculation over the possibility that next Thursday, December 18, during the last regularly scheduled FCC meeting of the year, Chairman Martin may decide to overturn that order prior to debate on that legislation taking place.

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That decision, if it comes, would be welcomed by Sec. Gutierrez.

"This mandate would likely lead to congested and inefficiently used broadband, and it would be inconsistent with the Administration's view that spectrum should be allocated by markets rather than governments," the Secretary wrote. "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. In contrast, open and highly competitive auction processes have supported both greatly expanded broadband services and the taxpayers' interests in spectrum license allocation. Moreover, a government-mandated free nationwide network is not the most effective or efficient way to assist underserved areas."

Proponents of the new business models to which the Secretary referred had an opportunity last October to plead their case before a willing audience at a conference on white spaces technology, which was attended by M2Z Networks -- the firm that has publicly lobbied to become the operator of this free broadband service. But the stage there was shared by other proponents who managed to steal the spotlight, including representatives of firms whose aim is to use white spaces technology in and around the AWS-3 block to deploy what are called smart radios -- devices whose channels can change themselves, adjusting to find the best frequency for any given moment.

One of those proponents was Michael Calabrese, the director of the Wireless Future Program for the New America Foundation, a public policy advocacy group. Communications Daily quoted Calabrese at the time as having gone so far as to advocate a second phase of the DTV transition, which amounted to no less than a dissolution of broadcast television altogether.

"Take TV off the air," Calabrese suggested, in words that were repeated on the Foundation's own Web site. In a proper world, he added, the entire broadcast spectrum should be opened up to wireless broadband, with television relegated to cable, satellite, and the Internet.

Calabrese's remarks may have actually served to guarantee opposition to the free wireless broadband plan, by effectively lumping M2Z's proposals in with virtually unworkable, and arguably ludicrous, plans to rid the airwaves of broadcasting.

In a weekly radio address earlier this month, President-Elect Obama voiced his support for the notion of free broadband service, listing it as among one of the public works projects that he believes could help restore the American economy.

"It is unacceptable," Mr. Obama said, "that the United States ranks fifteenth in the world in broadband adoption. Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they'll get that chance when I'm President -- because that's how we'll strengthen America's competitiveness in the world."

But Mr. Obama's comment did not necessarily mean that either his commerce secretary --very likely at this point to be current New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- or his nominee for FCC chairman will feel any differently than the current administration about the approach to bring that about. As a presidential candidate himself, Gov. Richardson advocated guaranteeing rural broadband access, which suggests that he may be in favor of the 25% mandate. However, whether the government should maintain control of the buildout process, as the FCC's current draft order for the AWS-3 auction suggests, is not a matter about which the incoming administration has gone on the record.

For now, the current FCC chairman is looking for a way to leave his stamp on the office, and he has these words from current Sec. Gutierrez to consider: "The Administration believes that the AWS-3 spectrum should be auctioned without price or product mandates. The FCC should rely on market forces to determine the best use of spectrum, subject to appropriate government rules to prevent harmful interference."

Update banner (stretched)

11:10 am EST December 12, 2008 - Reuters is reporting this morning that Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D. - W.V.), who is perceived as most likely to head the Senate Commerce Committee in the new Congress come January, may ask the FCC to delay its vote on the AWS-3 auction rules -- as well as any rulemaking concerning spectrum -- until after the DTV transition on February 17.

That would not only give time for Sen. Rockefeller to take his new seat in charge of the debate over free broadband, but to set the agenda for an even bigger and more pressing matter in the interim: the possible complete restructuring of the Federal Communications Commission. Granted, commissioners often come and go with passing administrations; but for over a decade, Sen. Rockefeller has voiced his support for legislation that would alter the mandate of the FCC, limit the terms of its commissioners, and conceivably make them more accountable to Congress.

If the free broadband debate has to wait for that discussion to conclude, the best-laid plans of M2Z Networks may have to be tabled for yet another year. Pres.-Elect Obama has been conspicuously silent about any potential nominees he may make to the FCC, in what could be perceived as, at the very least, interest in Rockefeller's proposals.

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