Debate heats up over open access spectrum rules

WASHINGTON -- Plans for valuable wireless spectrum being considered by the Federal Communications Commission may not go far enough to encourage a new broadband competitor, said groups calling for open-access rules for part of the spectrum.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, in an interview with USA Today published today, said he wants a "truly open broadband network" for the 700-MHz spectrum scheduled to be auctioned by early next year. That would mean customers could attach any device to the network and download any application, Martin told the newspaper.

Martin's proposal, reportedly to be applied to about a third of the 60-MHz of spectrum to be auctioned, is similar to Net neutrality rules that several consumer groups and Internet companies have championed for broadband networks.

But groups calling for open access to the 700-MHz spectrum want more than that. Groups such as Public Knowledge, Consumers Union and Free Press want the FCC to require winners of part of the spectrum to provide wholesale access to any wireless or broadband provider that wants to offer service on that spectrum.

Rules that would allow customers to attach any device and download any application are a good first step, but what Martin seems to be proposing is "not open access," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge. "Our definition of open access includes wholesale. You're not going to get competition in the broadband space unless you have wholesale as well."

The FCC is expected to set rules for use of the 700-MHz spectrum within weeks, and there's heavy debate in Washington over what those rules should look like. Many observers say the 700-MHz spectrum, now used by U.S. television stations for over-the-air broadcasts, is the ideal spectrum for long-range wireless broadband services.

With no other large auctions of spectrum in sight, Public Knowledge and other members of the Open Internet Coalition say open access rules offer the best chance for U.S. customers to ever see a third broadband service that competes with large cable and telecom providers.

But some wireless providers, think tanks and lawmakers have questioned open access rules. On Monday, 38 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to the FCC calling on the agency to reject open access rules. Such rules could hinder public safety communications on the spectrum, said the letter, signed by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, plus 36 other Republicans and one Democrat.

The 700-MHz spectrum includes 60 MHz to be auctioned to commercial users and another 24MHz set aside for public safety agencies such as police and fire departments. One proposal before the FCC, from startup Frontline Wireless LLC, would marry 10 MHz of commercial spectrum to be auctioned with 12 MHz of public safety spectrum for a network that would have both public safety and commercial users.

Open access rules would dictate how auction winners manage their networks and could reduce the value of the spectrum, the letter said. "We urge you to ensure that the rules the FCC crafts to govern the 700-MHz auction do not impose burdensome and unnecessary open access regulations on licensees," the letter said.

But members of the Open Internet Coalition said consumers want more freedom than current wireless networks provide. While the wireless industry likes to trumpet competition among carriers, mobile devices are tied to one network, and customers often have to pay huge early termination fees, said Ben Scott, Washington policy director for Free Press, a media reform group.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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