Carriers Oppose Consumers Seeking Open Networks

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Representatives of large broadband and wireless carriers have voiced opposition to a proposal from consumer groups that would impose open access and net neutrality conditions on a spectrum auction next year.

On Thursday, a coalition of consumer groups, including Public Knowledge and Consumers Union, sent a proposal to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, calling on the agency to place conditions on upcoming auctions of valuable spectrum in the upper 700MHz band. The groups called on the FCC to limit the bidding of large broadband providers, to allow open access on half of the spectrum being auctioned and to enforce net neutrality rules prohibiting auction winners from blocking customer access to Web content or applications.

But representatives of CTIA -- The Wireless Association, representing wireless phone providers, and the Hands Off the Internet coalition, representing AT&T Inc., Alcatel-Lucent SA and other groups, said they oppose the consumer groups' plan.

The proposal by the six groups calling themselves the Save Our Spectrum Coalition is an "awful idea," said Joe Farren, CTIA's director of public affairs. Auction conditions are unnecessary because "consumers have an abundance of choice" in the wireless market, he said.

"This makes no sense," he added. "In fact, it's dangerous because it could upend a completely healthy, competitive market."

The FCC's auction for 60MHz of spectrum in the upper 700MHz band is expected by early 2008. The spectrum, being abandoned by U.S. television broadcasters as they move from analog to digital broadcasts, is particularly valuable because wireless signals can travel four times farther than signals in higher bands. The spectrum would make it cheaper for wireless broadband providers to deploy networks over large geographic areas than with current spectrum, experts say.

The Save Our Spectrum Coalition said the spectrum auction represents the "last, best hope" for U.S. broadband customers to get a competitive third alternative to cable modem and DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) service. The conditions proposed could drive down prices and improve broadband speeds for U.S. customers, said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge.

"The problem we're trying to solve here is the lack of competition in the broadband market," added Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, a media reform advocate and member of the Save Our Spectrum group. "If we don't have competition, we won't have better broadband networks. Without better broadband networks, we won't have the economic growth that has fueled our economy in the information age."

But the Hands Off the Internet Coalition, which has opposed net neutrality bills in Congress, said the Save Our Spectrum Coalition is attempting to circumvent an FCC inquiry into the need for net neutrality.

"Those promoting regulation evidently aren't content with trying to slow down the wired Internet because they're now trying to tie down the wireless Web, too," Christopher Wolf, Hands Off the Internet co-chairman said in an e-mail. "Federal regulation is simply incapable of keeping up with changing wireless technologies, which are transforming the wireless Web even faster than the wired Internet."

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