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4/26/2007
04:46 PM
Richard Martin
Richard Martin
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FCC Fiddles, Broadband Opportunity Burns

"The most important step we can take to provide affordable broadband to all Americans is to facilitate the deployment of a third pipe into the home,'' FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said yesterday in announcing that the Commission would put off, once again, finalizing the structure of the 700MHz spectrum auction scheduled for later this year. "The upcoming auction represents the single most important opportunity f

"The most important step we can take to provide affordable broadband to all Americans is to facilitate the deployment of a third pipe into the home,'' FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said yesterday in announcing that the Commission would put off, once again, finalizing the structure of the 700MHz spectrum auction scheduled for later this year. "The upcoming auction represents the single most important opportunity for us to achieve this goal.'' Umm, right, exactly,Mr. Commissioner, so … think you could move it along a little here?It's not exactly the Second Coming, but the distribution of the highly prized bandwidth for advanced wireless services seems to taking just about as long. Last year in a presentation at the Wireless Communications Association International's Symposium and Expo, Michael Gallagher, who heads the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), boasted about the Bush Administration's "aggressive" efforts to free up spectrum for broadband wireless technology. In fact, the federal government has been about as aggressive on this front as it has been on confronting global warming.

Indeed, this latest delay, taken to "seek public comment" on the proposal from Frontline Wireless LLC to reserve 10 MHz of broadband for a nationwide "pre-emptible" commercial network that would provide additional bandwidth for public safety agencies in times of emergency, raises the question of whether the Martin-led FCC is even capable of making what will certainly be the defining decision of its tenure. As Janice Obuchowski, the NTIA head under George Bush Sr. and a co-founder of Frontline, told me today, "The zoning of the 700MHz band will have a serious impact on the contours of the wireless business for the next generation."

While the Commissioners listen to the siren song of lobbyists and congratulate themselves on their judiciousness, the United States continues to fall further behind other big economic powers in Europe and Asia in terms of broadband penetration. U.S. broadband penetration among worldwide industrialized nations dropped from 12th to 15th place, according to the latest rankings released this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It's not getting any better, either: America is a dismal 20th among the 30 OECD nations in terms of growth rate of broadband penetration in the last year.

By law, the FCC is required to complete the 700MHz auction by January of 2008. We have all seen such congressionally mandated deadlines come and go, however, and given the discouraging past history on this issue it would surprise no one to see that timeframe slip.

The competing interests are not small: the major wireless carriers, big tech corporations including Google and Intel, Frontline (which is backed by Silicon Valley legends John Doerr and James Barksdale), public demand for wireless broadband services, and national public safety in a post-9/11, post-Katrina world. Getting it right is imperative. But getting it done soon is too.

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