Lawmakers urge FCC to move forward with 'free' plan

The clock is ticking on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's free wireless broadband proposal, with organizations on both sides of the debate stepping up their arguments.

Two lawmakers and a company that backs the FCC's plan are among many groups that filed letters with the commission over the past couple of weeks, responding in part to T-Mobile's filing of the results of its technical laboratory test.

The FCC had expected to vote June 12 on a proposal to auction a 25MHz piece of spectrum in the 2155Mhz band and require the winner to use a specified amount of spectrum for free wireless Internet access. Although the FCC first floated the idea last September, mobile operators have asked the commission to delay the vote to give them more time to consider technical issues.

The operators say the technical requirements outlined by the FCC for the spectrum will cause interference with their existing services.

But last week, Representatives Anna Eshoo and Edward Markey suggested the operators might have other motives. "We are concerned that incumbent wireless carriers are seeking unnecessary and unprecedented testing delays to prevent new innovative competitors from entering the market," they wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

They point to tests done by the U.K.'s equivalent of the FCC that showed no substantial interference from the type of technical plan the FCC is proposing. "We are concerned that unnecessary interference testing would needlessly delay this auction and that this constitutes the very rationale to kill this effort totally. We urge you to carefully consider the existing precedent before making your determination," they wrote.

The International Telecommunication Union and other groups have also done tests, and they all come up with essentially the same results, said John Muleta, CEO of M2Z Networks, a company that backs the FCC's plan. The tests show that some interference is possible in certain, somewhat rare situations, a result that is typically considered acceptable, he said. In some countries, operators have already been allowed to offer services on the basis of those tests, he said.

He says it's ironic that T-Mobile has been a vocal opponent of the FCC's plan. In its filing last week, T-Mobile said the FCC's plan will lead to "destructive interference" to 3G services. "For consumers, the interference will be extensive, widespread, and unpredictable, significantly degrading their service," T-Mobile wrote.

Yet T-Mobile in the Czech Republic has itself already launched a comparable service using even more lax rules than those described by the FCC, said Muleta, who once served as chief of the FCC's wireless telecommunications bureau. T-Mobile offers a broadband wireless service in the Czech Republic using technology from IPWireless, a broadband wireless technology developer recently acquired by NextWave. T-Mobile USA and T-Mobile Czech Republic are both operating arms of T-Mobile International.

Muleta, whose company once proposed that the FCC give it spectrum so that the company could offer a free, advertising-supported broadband service, agrees with the lawmakers that the operators are probably hoping to stave off competition.

"In essence, they're gaming the system to make rules so that a new broadband competitor doesn't appear," Muleta said. "Any new entrant, especially one that appeals to consumers because the price is disruptive, is something they want to kill or delay."

It has been nearly a year since the FCC first proposed the auction with the free component. Per a legal statute, the FCC is compelled to make a decision about a new service or technology that it proposes within one year, Muleta said. If that time frame passes, anyone has the right to ask the courts to enforce the time line, he said. By his calculations, Sept. 6 is one year from the day when the FCC first suggested the plan. "To have any relevance, they have to stick to this," he said.

Discussion or a vote on this plan is not on the tentative agenda for the FCC's next open meeting, scheduled for Aug. 22.

In addition to operators and lawmakers, the FCC plan has also drawn opponents from an unusual corner: free speech advocates. The FCC would require that the winner of the spectrum impose content filtering in an effort to prevent young people from accessing adult content on the Internet. That runs foul of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, argue 22 organizations that filed a letter with the FCC in late July.

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