Lawmakers Ask FCC to Nix Free Internet Plan

Wireless spectrum auction

Two Republican lawmakers have called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to drop the proposed conditions for a new spectrum auction that would require the winning bidder to provide free Internet access.

In a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, Joe Barton of Texas and Florida’s Cliff Stearns said that the stipulation — which requires a winner to build a free-access network serving 95 percent of the population within a decade — would drive many potential bidders away.

“It seems to us that your proposed auction rules are going to discourage certain parties from bidding,” the representatives wrote. “Our understanding is that there are more than 40 small, medium and large carriers that would be interested in bidding on the spectrum if it didn’t have the service conditions.”

At issue is how the FCC plans to dispose of a part of the 2.1GHz-band wireless spectrum — known as Advanced Wireless Services 3 (AWS-3). At the same time, pressure is mounting on the government to establish a broadband policy that would improve Internet-access rates in underserved areas of the country.

That’s precisely the need the FCC’s free-access proposal is designed to meet, supporters said.

“This is about providing Americans across the nation with access to broadband Internet services — and we believe that’s a good thing,” FCC spokesman Robert Kenny told

Calls for universal broadband access most recently resulted in the creation of the Internet for Everyone initiative, a coalition of public and private groups that plans to press the issue in the upcoming election and afterward, in what is likely to be a radically different political landscape.

But Barton and Stearns warned that tethering the AWS-3 spectrum to a free-Internet business model wouldn’t interest most companies, and would drive the bidding price down as a result.

“Placing these conditions would result in the Commission choosing winners and losers, as well as denying taxpayers the added revenue the spectrum would likely fetch if auctioned without the conditions,” they wrote.

Kenny declined to engage the legislators’ points directly.

“The Commission is now in the process of receiving comments regarding the notice, and we look forward to receiving all the input from the public before proceeding with the proposed rules,” he said.

The proposal for a new auction comes on the heels of the greatest spectrum sell-off in U.S. history, during which the FCC raised $19.6 billion by selling off a large chunk of the 700MHz band.

Much of the spectrum, which is being reclaimed from analog television broadcasters, went to Verizon Wireless, AT&T and others.

But the auction failed to decide the fate of the D Block portion, which did not meet its reserve price during bidding. The block had been planned to serve, in part, as a network for public safety organizations.

Barton and Stearns asked Martin to delay the new auction until the D Block has been re-auctioned, and suggested that the agency extend the period for accepting public comments on the proposal past three weeks.

The congressmen also warned in their letter that the AWS-3 band could interfere with existing licenses in a neighboring part of the spectrum.

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