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Counties, M2Z Propose Free Broadband Network

County Executives of America (CEA), along with mobile broadband company M2Z Networks, has proposed to build a free wireless broadband network across the 700 counties that are members of the trade group.

Twelve of the CEA's 700 member counties have applied for a US$122 million broadband deployment grant from the U.S. National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) as a way to kick-start the project, CEA and M2Z announced Monday.

The project, which hinges on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission providing spectrum in the AWS-3 band, would be aimed at people who want broadband but can't afford it, said John Muleta, CEO and co-founder of M2Z.

M2Z, a venture-backed private company, has a petition outstanding with the FCC from May 2006 to use the AWS-3 spectrum for a nationwide wireless broadband network. But the FCC has not acted on the proposal, with opposition coming from mobile carriers including T-Mobile, which has raised concerns that the M2Z network would interfere with spectrum it purchases in the nearby AWS-1 band.

But the timing is right for M2Z's idea to move forward, said Muleta, former chief of the FCC's wireless bureau. Congress made $7.2 billion available for broadband deployment grants and loans in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in early 2009, and the application to NTIA would come out of that money.

In addition, the FCC, in its national broadband plan released in March, suggests the commission should auction the AWS-3 band by 2011. The national broadband plan also resurrects the idea of a nationwide free or low-cost wireless broadband network to provide customers with "sufficient connectivity for a basic package of broadband applications."

The 12 counties applying for the NTIA grant have about 14 million residents, and for about 5 million of those residents, cost is a factor in their decision not to subscribe to broadband, said Muleta, citing U.S. government studies about the effect of cost on broadband adoption.

"All the data coming from the FCC is supportive of something along these lines of public-private partnership," Muleta said. "What's really holding everything back is the lack of available spectrum."

All U.S. residents should have access to broadband and its benefits, including job searching and educational materials, CEA said. About 93 million U.S. residents don't subscribe to broadband because of its cost, according to studies from the FCC and NTIA, the group noted.

CEA has been pushing for a free broadband service for about five years, both for private residents and for public safety agencies, said Mike Griffin, the group's executive director. "The underserved communities are getting pushed further and further back," he said. "Now is the time to do it. This has been studied to death."

Among the 12 counties that banded together to apply for the NTIA grant are Bronx County, New York; St. Louis County, Missouri; Prince George's and Montgomery counties, Maryland; Allegheny County, Pennsylvania; and Salt Lake City County, Utah.

To pay for the nationwide network, M2Z would offer wholesale wireless broadband service to Internet service providers, and it would sell location-based advertising targeted at users of the free network. CEA members represent 700 of the approximately 3,100 counties in the U.S.

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