The FCC plans to issues rules Tuesday for an auction of radio spectrum in the 700-MHz band, which will be used to fuel the boom in wireless communications. The spectrum is becoming available because of the shift of broadcast television from analog to digital, which will free up the spectrum being used for analog television signals.
The actual auction won't take place until January. But the prospect of spectrum becoming available, especially spectrum that is able to carry signals through walls and floors and penetrate most buildings, already has attracted a lot of attention from major companies ranging from telecoms like AT&T and Verizon Communications to search company Google.
In just a few weeks, Google has used its tiny lobbying team of a dozen or so to do battle in Washington with scores of lobbyists and experts representing the telecom industry. The Washington Post noted Monday that Google's 2006 congressional lobbying budget was $770,000 compared with AT&T's $21 million budget and Verizon's $14.4 million lobbying fund.
Essentially, Google is arguing that the spectrum be used for "open" wireless networking, which means that consumers won't be limited in the kinds and types of devices and applications that they can use over that spectrum. AT&T and Verizon have issued some support for the concept of open networks, but also point out that they've spent billions of dollars to build an existing wireless networking infrastructure that has served the public well in lowering prices and introducing innovation.
Much of the focus in recent days has centered on the philosophies of the individual five commissioners. All five have posted statements outlining their thinking on the issue.
FCC chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, broke the ice on the issue when he leaned toward some openness for the spectrum. "Depending on how the commission structures the upcoming auction, we will either enable the emergence of a third broadband pipe -- one that would be available to rural as well as urban America -- or we will miss our biggest opportunity."
He continued: "I have also proposed that the license winner for about one-third of the spectrum be required to provide a platform that is more open to devices and applications."
Commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat, also said the 700-MHz spectrum could create a third broadband alternative. Cable broadband and DSL are the two primary broadband pipes today for most consumers.
Copps wrote: "There are many [studies] conducted by international organizations, industry associations, think tanks, and business analysts that have us at 21st, 11th, 12th, or 24th [in] broadband penetration. The 700-MHz auction could help turn this around. If we get it right, this auction offers the prospect of new competition, innovation and consumer choice."