Two Democratic members of the Federal Communications Commission have lent their support to an open-access wireless network proposal, giving it a majority backing, but stopped short of supporting a broader provision proposed by Google.
During a hearing in front of a US House subcommittee, two of the five FCC members said they supported FCC chairman Kevin Martin’s proposal to open up about one-third of the forthcoming 700 MHz spectrum, which TV broadcasters are vacating by early next year as they convert to digital signals. The idea is that any device could be used and any software could be downloaded over these open airwaves, in contrast to the existing closed, proprietary networks.
Google has lobbied that an open network is necessary to give US consumers a third choice in mobile broadband – rather than be limited to buying service from either a giant cable or phone company – and to bring wireless innovation in the country in line with other parts of the world, notably Europe.
The two Democratic FCC members sided with Martin on the proposal, while the remaining two members, both Republican, said they were considering all options and had not yet decided.
The Democrats sitting on the House Subcommittee on the Telecommunications and the Internet also mostly supported the open-access proposal, known as wholesale provision. The Republicans on the subcommittee generally did not.
Their concern is that limiting the spectrum with open-access conditions would result in fewer companies bidding on the airwaves, which in turn would mean fewer dollars in the coffers of the US Treasury.
Much of the wireless industry shares this concern, including the top two wireless carriers in country, AT&T and Verizon Wireless.
Google, however, has lobbied not just for an open-access network but also for rules that would require licensees to lease their networks to wireless service providers, including broadband providers.
While any embrace of open platforms is welcome, only if the FCC adopts all [Google’s] principles will we see the genuinely competitive marketplace that Americans deserve, Google head of special initiatives Chris Sacca said, in his blog late last week. In particular, guaranteeing open services and open networks would ensure that entrepreneurs starting new networks and services will have a fair shot at success, in turn giving consumers a wider choice of broadband providers.
Google pledged to bid at least $4.6bn in the forthcoming spectrum auction if the FCC agreed to add these open-network requirements.
However, FCC chairman Martin yesterday said Google’s proposal to would potentially discourage companies from bidding on the airwaves.
AT&T said Google’s request was little more than an attempt to bribe the FCC in order to gain airwaves at bargain-basement prices. If Google is serious about introducing a competing business model into the wireless industry, chairman Martin’s compromise proposal allows them to bid in the auction, win the spectrum, and then implement every one of the conditions they seek, said Jim Cicconi, AT&T VP of legislative affairs, in an email. Instead, however, Google is demanding the government stack the deck in its favor, limit competing bids, and effectively force wireless carriers to alter their business models to Google’s liking.
Martin’s draft proposal stopped short of addressing the potential for a copmany to bid on spectrum and then sit on it, without actually building out a network.
The auction must take place by January 28 next year, although no date has yet been set.
Google said it would not bid in the auction unless the FCC met all its requirements. Now that Martin has said it would not, it remains to be seen whether Google will, indeed, participate in the bidding or not. If it does, expect more accusations from AT&T and Verizon Wireless that Google’s proposition and any subsequent actions are little more than a spectrum landgrab.