Open Access Advocates Draw Fire During FCC Auction

Tech companies pushing for access to spectrum "white spaces" and for net neutrality and open access on broadband and wireless networks have an antiproperty agenda, says one critic.

Open access and other conditions on the 700MHz spectrum currently being auctioned by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission may be suppressing bids and limiting the uses winning bidders have for the spectrum, added Scott Cleland, founder of telecom analyst firm The Precursor Group, speaking at the U.S. Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee's 2008 State of the 'Net Conference in Washington, D.C. Cleland voiced a contrarian view during a discussion of spectrum policy; other speakers called on the U.S. Congress and the FCC to open up more spectrum to unlicensed uses.

Open access in the ongoing 700MHz auction at the FCC, widening fair-use rights under copyright, net neutrality and white-spaces access to television spectrum are all part of a broad and hidden agenda pushed by some tech companies and civil liberties groups, said Cleland, whose company operates the anti-net-neutrality advocacy group NetCompetition.org.

"Everybody throws the word 'open' around and says open is wonderful," he said. "But 'open' means communal. It means not owned."

How Open is Enough?

Other speakers suggested mobile networks aren't open enough. Mobile voice providers Verizon Wireless and AT&T have embraced a version of open access in recent months, but they still limit innovative mobile applications, said Jason Devitt, founder of secretive startup Skydeck and cofounder of mobile-phone-application provider Vindigo.

Verizon Wireless in November announced it would open its network this year to outside devices, but that doesn't help mobile application developers, Devitt said. Most of Verizon's customers will still get their handsets from Verizon, and developers will have to get the company's permission to include their applications on Verizon-sold phones, he said.

"If you're a developer of mobile applications, Verizon's announcement makes no difference," he said.

Cleland blasted the FCC for including open-access requirements in about a third of the 62MHz of spectrum in the 700MHz band currently being auctioned, saying some of the requirements may have driven away bidders. In the 22MHz block of spectrum called the C block, the winning bidder must allow users to bring devices such as mobile phones from other carriers and allow outside applications to run on the network.

The FCC's 700MHz auction began last Thursday, and after 16 rounds of bidding through Wednesday, the high bid for the C block was nearly $4.3 billion, just short of the reserve price of $4.6 billion set by the FCC. High bids for the complete auction totalled $10.8 billion, and the FCC had expected to raise at least $10 billion. The auction will likely continue for several days, depending on bidding action.

But Cleland criticized the FCC for imposing conditions on the C block and the D block of spectrum, a 10MHz block that the FCC wants to pair with another 10MHz set aside for public safety. The winning bidder of the D block would be required to build a nationwide mobile and broadband network with the two pieces of spectrum, with the network shared by public safety agencies and commercial users.

By midweek, the D block had received a high bid of $472 million, far short of the $1.3 billion reserve price demanded by the FCC. The FCC may have to re-auction the D block without some of the requirements, Cleland said.

When the FCC sets several conditions on spectrum, "the bidders have the freedom not to play," Cleland said. "An auction is a party. You don't get people to come to your party if you make it not fun and not a happy place."

Other speakers disagreed with Cleland. The FCC needs to push forward with a proposal that would open up the unused "white spaces" in the spectrum bands used by U.S. television broadcasters, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Spectrum Policy Program at think tank the New America Foundation.

Opening up this unused spectrum, which allows the long-range transmission of signals, would allow companies to offer wireless broadband services, particularly in rural areas, Calabrese said.

TV broadcasters have opposed unlicensed spectrum use in the white spaces, saying the technology to avoid existing signals is unproven. The FCC is currently testing white-space devices.

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