Though it didn’t win any licenses in the Federal Communications Commission’s recent multi-billion-dollar spectrum auction, Google said it is pleased with the results — and vows to continue pressing for greater network openness.
The comments come as the first from the online giant following the end of a federally mandated quiet period that now leaves participants in the FCC’s 700MHz spectrum auction free to dish on the their bidding strategies and future plans.
For Google, (NASDAQ: GOOG) those plans involve working with regulators as the FCC decides how to address issues lingering in the wake of the largest spectrum sell-off in history.
“The end of the auction certainly doesn’t mark the end of our efforts toward greater wireless choice and innovation,” Richard Whitt, Google’s Washington telecom and media counsel, and Joseph Farber, Google’s corporate counsel, wrote yesterday in a company blog post.
While Verizon Wireless walked away the winning bidder in the spectrum’s premium C Block, Google’s participation proved instrumental. The company’s bidding helped to trigger rules requiring the block’s winner to open the network they create to all types of devices and applications.
Fiercely resisted by Verizon, the FCC’s open-access requirements were a key victory for Google, which is working to build support for its Android mobile application platform through the Open Handset Alliance.
While Google remained tight-lipped on its intentions heading into the auction, many observers believed the company’s motivations were less about spending billions on licenses to build a nationwide wireless network, and more about forcing open access.
Whitt and Farber this week confirmed those suspicions.
“Google’s top priority heading into the auction was to make sure that bidding on the so-called ‘C Block’ reached the $4.6 billion reserve price that would trigger the important ‘open applications’ and ‘open handsets’ license conditions,” they wrote.
To ensure C Block bidding hit the necessarily price, Google raised its bid in 10 rounds of the auction even when it was faced no opposing bidders, Whit and Farber wrote.
They added that Google had been prepared to shell out for the licenses in the event that no one topped its bids.
The open-access game
As it begins the next phase of its network build-out, all eyes now will be on Verizon to ensure that the wireless provider adheres to the openness provisions stipulated in the auction’s rules.
Speaking earlier this week at the CTIA Wireless 2008 conference in Las Vegas, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said he would recommend that his fellow commissioners reject a petition to regulate open access. The petition had been submitted by Voice-over-Internet-Protocol
Martin said the incumbent carriers had signaled that they were moving toward openness on their own accord, so adding new regulations would be unnecessary.
Verizon Wireless, for instance, reversed its position on open access late last year, first abandoning its legal challenge to the FCC’s auction rules, then pledging to support open device access on its current wireless network in advance of the auction.
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While Martin’s speech this week drew cheers from his audience, many outside the wireless establishment did not share the enthusiasm.
“While the recent trend toward greater openness for consumers is encouraging, one could argue that the incumbent carriers are taking these steps partly under the threat that the FCC will act on the Skype petition,” Google’s Whitt said in an e-mail to InternetNews.com. “In order to protect consumers, the FCC should keep the Skype petition in place as an effective deterrent against bad behavior.”
Christopher Libertelli, Skype’s senior director of government and regulatory affairs, echoed Google’s concerns and was predictably disappointed in Martin’s remarks.
“Without Commission oversight in this area, the FCC will have taken a step backward away from openness, and toward a policy of ‘trust the carriers,’ Libertelli said in an e-mail to InternetNews.com. “While we are cautiously optimistic that the carriers will deliver greater openness, unfortunately, if the FCC acts on the chairman’s recommendation, it will have given up the tools to protect consumers if they do not.”
Opinion within the FCC itself is divided, with Commissioner Michael Copps quickly lashing out at Martin’s comments.
“This is not the time for the FCC to declare victory and withdraw from the fight for open wireless networks,” Copps said in a statement. “I would be a lot happier if Chairman Martin had come out today in favor of a strong and unequivocal FCC commitment to non-discriminatory, pro-consumer conduct in the wireless world.”
Copps argued that since consumers are used to being able to run any software application on any computer, that freedom should extend to wireless devices as well.
D Block and white space
With the first Android phone expected to ship later this year, Google’s commitment to ensuring open-network access is fast becoming a business priority, not just a matter of principle. Not surprisingly, the company is pushing ahead with efforts to encourage lawmakers to open other areas of available spectrum.
Whit and Farber said they would continue to pressure the FCC to tap the so-called “white spaces” in the television spectrum for use in mobile broadband.
In addition to determining whether to regulate network openness, the FCC must also decide how to dispose of the 700MHz spectrum’s D Block, which failed to meet its reserve price during bidding.
Google said it would discuss with the FCC on how to re-auction the D Block, which is reserved for pubic safety networks. Lawmakers also are expected to hold hearings on the matter.
“As more policymakers and regulators around the world evaluate their own spectrum policies, we’ll continue pushing to help make the wireless world look much more like the open platform of the Internet,” Whitt and Farber wrote.