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Washington Spins iPhone for Policy

Leave it to a Washington insider to find an iPhone angle to spin a controversial policy debate on spectrum.

With approximately 500,000 iPhone moving off the shelves over the weekend, former Federal Communications Commission (FFC) Chairman Reed Hundt is effusive in his praise for the new Apple device. But it's too bad, he added, that Steve Jobs really had no one other than AT&T to turn to for a wireless carrier.

"It's the only network that reaches 90 percent of the United States," Hundt told reporters during a teleconference today. "It is at dial-up speeds, though. I'm not blaming AT&T. That's like blaming the sun for global warming. The blame rests with the government."

Using slow wireless networks to power iPhones, he said, is a "bridge back to the 20th Century."

Hundt, who served as the head of the FCC during the Clinton administration, has more than a passing interest in new wireless networks. He and his partners in Frontline Wireless are trying to convince the FCC to change the rules for the upcoming 700 MHz auction to create a public/private partnership for a national network to compete with AT&T and Verizon.

The spectrum is coming from airwaves to be abandoned by television broadcasters as part of the digital television transition. The spectrum is considered ideal for wireless broadband.

Frontline's proposal calls for carving out 10 MHz of the 60 MHz up for auction. The winning bidder would then combine its spectrum with the 24 MHz already dedicated to a public safety network to operate a wireless network based on open access that would be available to first responders in national emergencies.

The network, Frontline promises, would be available to "anyone and everyone" and it would not restrict Internet content or the type of device that could be connected to the network.

The proposal has generated considerable controversy, including a Monday letter from 12 Republicans and 4 Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee urging the FCC to reject the Frontline plan.

"Public safety and government officials note that little time has been available to scrutinize the 11th hour proposal, which is short on specifics, leaving doubt whether the business plan and proposed network will really work," the letter states.

The lawmakers are also opposed to the open access aspects of the Frontline plan.

"Suggestions to impose wholesale and so-called open access requirements…are blatant poison pills to discourage competing bids and lower the price of the spectrum," they told the FCC.

Hundt was unfazed by the letter.

"They don't seem to have heard of the iPhone," Hundt said. "If they didn't get it before, the iPhone proves we need a fast, fourth generation (4G) network. Our job is to make sure this Ferrari doesn't run on a dirt road."

A 4G network like Frontline is proposing, Hundt said, would run 10 times faster than the current AT&T EDGE network deployed for iPhones.

AT&T and Verizon are expected to be major bidders for the spectrum soon up for bid.

"We need a third competitor," Hundt said. "We don't need the FCC to tie a ribbon around the auction for Verizon and AT&T."

The FCC is expected to announce it spectrum rules within the next few weeks.