FCC Auction Of Low-Range Spectrum Could Open Broadband Doors

Coalitions are lobbying to limit what spectrum carriers' can buy in aid of new business models
Will U.S. consumers get a "third pipe" for broadband--a wireless option that can go toe-to-toe with cable and DSL? Will public safety workers get the wireless network that's gotten lip service since Sept. 11, 2001?

Those are the stakes when the Federal Communications Commission in the coming weeks sets rules for this year's auction of the 700-MHz spectrum for wireless broadband. Congress is forcing TV broadcasters to go digital by 2009, freeing the precious low-range spectrum, which covers large distances, penetrates walls, and reaches into basements.

Historically, big telecom carriers snatch up such spectrum. But several coalitions are lobbying to restrict how carriers can buy spectrum, claiming that will give new business models a chance.

Save Our Spectrum, formed by consumer advocacy groups, is lobbying the FCC for rules favoring the creation of a high-speed Internet service to compete with cable and DSL--auctioning spectrum at a wholesale level so various Internet service providers could use it to offer broadband services. The Coalition for 4G America--including DirecTV, Google, Intel, Skype, and Yahoo--also is pushing for rules to enable new broadband entrants.

Two groups see a business model in using the spectrum for a public safety network combined with commercial access. Cyren Call wants a slice of the spectrum put in a public trust. Then it would partner with telecoms that would build a network in exchange for being able to sell wireless broadband services. "Public safety wants to own the spectrum, not a private company that dictates what we can and cannot do with it," says Charles Werner, fire chief in Charlottesville, Va. Frontline Wireless, co-founded by former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, with investors including Netscape ex-CEO James Barksdale and John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, aims to build a nationwide public safety broadband network, then sell commercial access.

This is where government earns its keep: allocating scarce goods to greatest public bene- fit. Measure success on progress toward a via- ble, affordable wireless broadband network.

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