Consumer group calls for more competition in spectrum auction

They want chance for rivals of big carriers to provide broadband alternative

WASHINGTON -- A coalition of consumer groups wants open access for a portion of valuable wireless spectrum to be auctioned by the Federal Communications Commission in early 2008.

The six groups, calling themselves the Save Our Spectrum Coalition, filed comments with the FCC today, suggesting that competitors to the large DSL and cable modem service providers could use the open access to provide a broadband alternative. Sometime next year, the FCC is due to auction 60 MHz of spectrum in the upper 700-MHz band that's being abandoned by television broadcasters as they move from analog to digital broadcasts.

The groups also asked the FCC to either prohibit wireline and large wireless incumbents from bidding or to require them to bid through affiliates.

The groups are "urging the commission to write rules that ensure consumers and the public are the ultimate winners in the auction of this valuable spectrum, not the cable and Bell company broadband duopoly," said Jeannine Kenney, a senior policy analyst at Consumers Union of United States Inc. "This spectrum, in our view, represents the last, best hope for meaningful competition in broadband."

Representatives of broadband providers AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. weren't immediately available for comment.

The groups want the FCC to impose conditions on the winners of the spectrum auction. They want half of the 60 MHz to be auctioned to allow open access to competitors of the large broadband providers, and they asked the FCC to require the spectrum to be available at wholesale rates.

The groups, including Public Knowledge and the Consumer Federation of America, also asked the FCC to require that winners of the spectrum allow customers to use any equipment or application and to access any Web content without interference. That provision is similar to Net neutrality rules the groups and others are pushing the U.S. Congress to pass.

The upper 700-MHz spectrum band represents some of the spectrum best suited for wireless broadband services. Congress has budgeted $10 billion for the sale of the 60 MHz, and another 24 Mhz is reserved for public safety agencies to use.

Each tower transmitting in the upper 700-MHz spectrum band can cover four times the geographic area as towers in higher bands, and the signals go through obstacles such as trees and buildings better than traditional Wi-Fi, said Michael Calabrese, director of the wireless future program at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.

"This is the last large auction of prime spectrum in the foreseeable future," Calabrese said during a Save Our Spectrum Coalition press conference.

The coalition's proposal is similar to one offered in late February by Frontline Wireless LLC, whose founders include Haynes Griffin, founding CEO of Vanguard Cellular, and Reed Hundt, former FCC chairman.

Under the Frontline proposal, the FCC would license a 10-MHz block under the condition that the auction winner would build a nationwide infrastructure to support a broadband network for public safety agencies. The licensee would be required to allow open access, offering the spectrum to local public safety agencies on a wholesale basis.

There are several competing visions for the spectrum. In April 2006, Cyren Call Communications LLC proposed that half of the 60 MHz set to be auctioned be set aside for public safety agencies, in addition to the 24 Mhz approved by Congress. Several police and firefighter groups support that proposal.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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