RealTime IT News

Google Prepping National Wireless Broadband Entry?

A possible Google entry into the wireless broadband market received a boost today with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Kevin Martin endorsing dedicating a portion of the upcoming 700 MHz spectrum auction to open access requirements.

According to an FCC source, Martin has finished a draft set of rules for the January auction that would dedicate 22 of the 60 MHz up for sale as open access airwaves. The proposal has not been circulated to other FCC commissioners.

Open access spectrum, as proposed by Martin, would allow consumers to connect any legal device to the wireless network. The rules for the spectrum would also contain prohibitions against the network provider blocking legal content, a key provision of network neutrality.

Google , which has petitioned the FCC to set aside some of the auction spectrum for an open wireless platform, welcomed Martin's proposal. Speculation has swirled around both Washington and the Silicon Valley that if the FCC were to carve out some of the spectrum for open access, Google might be inclined to bid for that spectrum.

"If these reports are accurate, we are most encouraged by this favorable development," Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel, wrote on the company's blog. "Obviously we'll need to see the fine print, but such a proposal would represent a step forward for new, innovative entrants to the broadband market."

Whitt wrote Google has been taking a "closer look" at whether and how Google might participate "meaningfully" in the auction.

The auction may be one of the most lucrative in U.S. history with speculation that it will bring in as much as $20 billion. The spectrum will come from airwaves deserted by television broadcasters as part of the digital TV transition and is considered ideal for wireless broadband.

As originally envisioned by Congress, the spectrum would go to the highest bidder with the proceeds underwriting digital converter boxes for consumers and a national public safety wireless network. Excess proceeds will go to the federal treasury.

But many groups have opposed that plan, calling instead for at least some of the spectrum to be dedicated to an open network. The hope, the groups say, is to establish a third broadband competitor to telephone and cable companies.

"Our analysis has confirmed that, under the originally proposed rules, the existing national wireless carriers are likely to prevail in the bidding process against a potential new entrant like Google," Whitt wrote.

Wireless carriers were quick to criticize Martin's proposal.

"Crafting special rules for a company with a market cap of $170 billion to address problems that don't exist in our competitive market makes absolutely no sense whatsoever," Steve Largent, president and CEO of the incumbent wireless carrier trade group CTIA, said in a statement.

"The bottom line is that the American taxpayer is at serious risk of losing billions of dollars because one of the wealthiest companies in the world has apparently convinced policymakers that they require special auction rules that tailor-fit their business plan."

Martin's proposal would be a step in the right direction but still falls short of what needs to be done to pave the way for a third broadband competitor to challenge telephone and cable company broadband offerings, members of the Open Internet Coalition said in a teleconference.

"Our definition of open access includes wholesale," Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of coalition member Public Knowledge, said. Under the Open Coalition plan, winners of certain slices of spectrum would have to make their airwaves available at wholesale prices to encourage competition in the wireless broadband market.

Fellow coalition member Chris Libertelli, director of government and regulatory affairs for Voice over IP (VoIP) provider Skype, added that the wireless Internet should have the same diversity of choice as the wired web.

"Currently, there is a very limited set of applications being offered by wireless carriers," said Chris Murray, legislative counsel for the Consumers Union.