Time Running Short for Free Internet Plan

The Federal Communications Commission may have put itself in sleep mode, but that hasn’t stopped some House Democrats from pressing the agency to move ahead with a plan to build a free, nationwide broadband network.

In a recent letter, Reps. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., both members of the House Subcommittee on Technology and the Internet, called on the FCC’s two Democratic commissioners to approve the free Internet proposal ahead of the agency’s next meeting.

Under the plan, Chairman Kevin Martin had proposed that the commission auction off a portion of the wireless spectrum, known as AWS-3, with the provision that the winning bidder devote a portion of the network to free Internet service with content filters to block indecent Web sites.

Martin had included the item on the agenda for the FCC’s December meeting, which was scheduled for Dec. 18, but was then canceled under pressure from lawmakers who asked the agency to focus its energies on next February’s digital television transition.

FCC spokesman Rob Kenny said the commission has tentatively scheduled a meeting for Jan. 15, but there is no word on the items that are likely to appear on the agenda.

“The chairman is always in discussion with the other offices,” Kenny told InternetNews.com, but added that there have been no signs of support from the other commissioners.

The agenda for the January meeting could be announced as early as next week.

That meeting would likely be Martin’s last chance to move on a host of issues he had hoped to push through. Martin, a Republican, is widely expected to leave the commission early in the Obama administration. In response to the recent letter from Rep. Henry Waxman and Sen. John Rockefeller, the presumptive chairmen of the House and Senate Commerce Committees in the next Congress, Martin could keep the January meeting focused on DTV issues if he doesn’t find support from other commissioners.

Nevertheless, in their letter, Rush and Towns asked Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein to cast approving votes for the AWS-3 plan through a procedure known as circulation, where the commission can affirm a draft order outside of its open meetings. With the support of Copps and Adelstein, Martin would have the three-person majority he needs to clear the way for the spectrum auction.

Supporters of the plan describe it as a panacea for America’s digital divide, bringing high-speed Internet service to underserved areas with low rates of broadband adoption.

“Most of the over 100 million adults in the United States who either rely on antiquated dial-up services or lack Internet access altogether come from low-income households or live in inner-city or rural settings where providers refuse to provide service,” Rush and Towns wrote.

“This digital divide is intolerable and must be bridged,” they continued. “We believe a properly managed auction of the AWS-3 spectrum would go a long way in accomplishing just that.”

[cob:Special_Report]The AWS-3 proposal, which closely mirrors a plan submitted by Silicon Valley startup M2Z Networks, would allocate one quarter of the spectrum to a free network with connection speeds comparable to baseline DSL service. The remainder would offer faster service for a fee.

The FCC proposal sets a timetable for the build-out of the free network. Within four years, the winning bidder would have to provide service to 50 percent of the population, and reach 95 percent within 10 years.

Only the free network would have the content filter.

Rush and Towns also charge the FCC with violating a provision of the Communications Act requiring the agency to act on a proposal for a new technology or service within 12 months of its introduction. The FCC submitted its notice for proposed rulemaking for the AWS-3 auction in September 2007.

Spokesmen for Copps and Adelstein’s offices did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the proposal.

The idea of expanding broadband deployment is hardly controversial. President-elect Obama has already signaled his intention to include broadband provisions in his economic recovery plan, and Republicans and Democrats alike champion greater connectivity as a path to shoring up the country’s competitive position.

But that consensus breaks down over the AWS-3 plan. Critics say that attaching the free-service requirement to the spectrum is tantamount to the government dictating a business model.

That condition, along with the content filtering requirement, would deter prospective bidders from participating in the spectrum auction, they say. The result would be selling price far below market value.

Wireless providers, most vocally T-Mobile, warn that upstream traffic on the proposed network could interfere with phone calls and data transmissions on the adjacent spectrum that they spent billions of dollars to acquire.

T-Mobile has also raised the question of whether the VC-backed M2Z would be able to meet the build-out requirements to deliver service to 95 percent of Americans in 10 years.

In a partial address of that concern, Martin included a “claw-back” provision that would strip the winning bidder of its unused spectrum if it failed to meet the interim benchmark of providing service to 50 percent of the country in four years.

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