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FCC OKs auction rules for unlocked phones, applications

Public-private network for emergency communications also envisioned

July 31, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The Federal Communications Commission today approved rules for a planned 700-MHz auction that provide for unlocked phones and applications but do not require bidders to provide wholesale wireless services.

In addition, the rules set a requirement for part of the spectrum to create a public-private partnership for interoperable communications for public safety organizations nationwide.

The commission discussed the rules publicly for nearly two hours, voting 4-1, with Commissioner Robert McDowell "dissenting in part," as he put it. McDowell wanted fewer restrictions on potential bidders, saying that large companies might not bid on parts of the spectrum encumbered by rules for open access, meaning they could bid on other portions that are "unencumbered" and push out smaller companies from the bidding.

The four commissioners in the majority were Chairman Kevin Martin and Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein, Michael Copps and Deborah Tate.

The four in the majority said that they would have preferred a government-funded approach to a national interoperable network for public safety but said that a private-public partnership would be the next best approach. They noted it has been nearly six years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when public safety organizations could not communicate easily and added that it is time to take action.

When the spectrum auction occurs in January as planned, it is expected to raise about $10 billion to $20 billion for the U.S. Treasury. The 700-MHz band is being freed up because of the advent of digital television, freeing up analog Channels 52 to 69 on Feb. 17, 2009. Martin said many of the requirements envisioned in the auction rules could not be implemented by winning bidders until 2010.

Martin championed unlocked phones and applications, which would enable consumers to buy cell phones and applications that could be used with any wireless carrier. He held up two identical Nokia Corp. phones that he said demonstrated the problem with the way certain applications are sometimes restricted. One sold in the U.S. by carriers bans use in Wi-Fi zones, while the other, sold in Europe, allows use in Wi-Fi zones. The unlocked phone and application provision would allow use of hardware and applications across a portion of the newly allocated 700-MHz spectrum.

Tate said the vote in favor of the rules was a "very close call" for her. Among several items, Tate said she is concerned with keeping the public safety network that is created "properly protected." "None of us would want an e911 call not to be made because it couldn't find its way through a stream of movie" or other wireless content, she added.

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