Wireless spectrum debate moves into presidential politics

John Edwards weighs in on wireless spectrum

Debate over upcoming auctions of wireless spectrum in the U.S. has reached new heights -- the U.S. presidential campaign.

This week, John Edwards, a leading Democratic candidate for president and former U.S. senator, called on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to ensure that small companies and wholesalers can bid on pieces of the 700MHz band when the spectrum goes to auction by early next year.

Winners of the spectrum should not be able to "discriminate" against competing Web content and services, Edwards added in a letter sent Wednesday to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

Edwards' call for nondiscrimination of Web content echoes requests by net neutrality advocates, who argue that the FCC or the U.S. Congress should prohibit broadband carriers from blocking or slowing Web content from competitors. Edwards' proposal is similar to one advanced by Frontline Wireless LLC, which has called for part of the spectrum to be made available to wholesalers.

By taking the steps Edwards suggested, the FCC would ensure that all U.S. residents have access to inexpensive broadband, the presidential candidate wrote.

The Internet "improves our democracy by making quiet voices loud, improves our economy by making small markets big, and improves opportunity by making unlikely dreams possible," Edwards wrote. "By setting bid and service rules that unleash the potential of smaller new entrants, you can transform the information opportunity for people across America -- rural and urban, wealthy and not."

The spectrum will become available by February 2009. That's the date by which Congress voted last year to require U.S. TV stations to switch to digital broadcasts and abandon channels 51 to 69.

Tech and telecom companies are eyeing the new spectrum for a variety of wireless broadband services. Each tower transmitting in the upper 700MHz spectrum band can cover up to four times the large geographic area as towers in higher bands, experts say.

Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group that backs net neutrality rules, applauded Edwards' involvement in the 700MHz debate. Public Knowledge is part of a coalition also calling for "open access" for parts of the 700MHz band.

Edwards' involvement can help raise the spectrum debate to another level, said Art Brodsky, spokesman for Public Knowledge.

"That's a welcome development because this subject matter is important to our economy and to consumers," Brodsky said. Public Knowledge has suggested that the 700MHz auction represents the best chance for broadband competition to cable and DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) providers in the near future.

Major broadband providers have opposed calls for open access to the auctioned spectrum. A representative of Verizon Communications Inc. declined to comment on the Edwards letter, and an AT&T Inc. representative wasn't immediately available.

But the Frontline proposal for open access and wholesale providers creates heavy regulations for the spectrum use, said Randolph J. May, president of conservative think tank The Free State Foundation. May called on the FCC to reject the Frontline proposal in an e-mail sent out Wednesday.

"The managed competition vision rests on an assumption, rarely stated this bluntly, of course, that the regulators, through their supervision and control of unbundling decisions, can do better than the marketplace in promoting consumer welfare," May wrote.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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