FCC Concedes to Testing on Free Internet Plan

Bowing to requests from wireless carriers, the Federal Communications Commission has agreed to postpone its plans to move forward with a controversial initiative to create a family-friendly network that would provide free Internet access to nearly all Americans.

The tension arises from T-Mobile’s claim, supported by its fellow carriers, that the spectrum the FCC would auction for the proposed network would interfere with transmissions on existing wireless networks.

“We’re going to participate in some testing with T-mobile in Seattle to determine
to what level there maybe interference before we proceed,” FCC spokesman Robert Kenny told InternetNews.com. The trial will take place Sept. 3 through 5 at Boeing’s test facility outside the city.

Julius Knapp, the chief engineer at the FCC’s office of engineering and technology will conduct the trials with three other engineers from the commission, along with a contingent from T-Mobile. The FCC has not previously conducted its own testing.

Supporters of the plan, including FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, had previously argued that no further testing was needed, arguing against delays on the grounds that universal broadband access is a top national priority.

Required to provide free broadband

Under the plan, the winning bidder would be required to provide free broadband service to 50 percent of the country within four years, and 95 percent of the country within 10 years. The license would also require the network provider to install a filter to keep out pornography and other inappropriate content.

The spectrum in question is a 25 MHz block that sits in the 2.1 GHz block, known as Advanced Wireless Services 3 (AWS-3).

In comments submitted to the FCC, T-Mobile included the results of testing it had conducted warning that licensing the AWS-3 spectrum could result in a network that would interfere with its own licenses in the neighboring AWS-1 band.

Several incumbent wireless carriers such as AT&T, as well as CTIA, the wireless industry association, had asked the FCC to look into the interference issues before committing to the auction.

“The chairman felt that it was worth taking the time to address this issue of interference, and that’s why we set up this testing for next week,” Kenny said.

Lawmakers have weighed in on both sides of the issue. Earlier this month, two House Democrats sent a letter to the commission warning against the delay, and suggesting that the interference issues were overblown. They noted that the British counterpart to the FCC, Ofcom, had proved that the two bands of spectrum were compatible.

Another letter came from two House Republicans who argued against the requirement that the winning bidder offer consumers free broadband access on the network. Mandating the business model, which presumably would be ad-supported, would drive down the price the spectrum would fetch at auction, the lawmakers warned.

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