FCC Strikes Down Free Broadband Plan

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The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has closed the door on a controversial proposal for a way to use a chunk of wireless spectrum, but continues to consider how best to deploy the valuable spectrum.

The FCC notified M2Z on Friday that it would not support a plan based on the company's proposal to offer free wireless broadband services.

The idea first came to light in 2006 when M2Z asked the FCC to give it spectrum so that it could build a national broadband network that would deliver Internet services to people for free. The network would be advertising-supported and would also offer a faster service for a fee.

In late 2007, the FCC turned down M2Z's request. But former FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin then sought comment on a new proposal that was similar to M2Z's but required that interested operators bid in an auction for the spectrum. The proposal specified frequencies in the 2155 MHz through 2175 MHz band, also known as the AWS-3 band.

Many existing mobile operators vehemently opposed the plan, which would have resulted in a free offering to compete with their services. The FCC went so far as to conduct tests in an effort to determine whether services in the relevant spectrum band would cause harmful interference to existing mobile services.

Proponents and opponents of the plan interpreted the results of the tests in their own favor.

In a statement on Wednesday about the FCC's decision not to support the proposal, M2Z pointed to broad support for its idea. It said that more than 50,000 people signed a petition and 20,000 people sent letters and e-mails to the FCC and members of Congress supporting the proposed rules. In addition, 300 local, state and federal officials from all 50 states wrote to the FCC in support of the proposed rules, M2Z said.

But the FCC may have decided that the opposition was greater than the support. "We gave careful and thorough consideration to the proposal, but ultimately determined that this was not the best policy outcome," Ruth Milkman, chief of the FCC Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, said in a statement. "We remain vigilant in our efforts to facilitate the universal deployment and adoption of broadband, especially through the much-needed reform to the universal service fund."

Per recommendations made in the National Broadband Plan, the FCC is looking for other spectrum bands that it might pair the AWS-3 band with. That would give an operator a wider swatch of spectrum to work with and, depending on the pairing, could offer them better deals on equipment that has already been developed for use in other parts of the world.

The plan calls for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to develop reports on the potential for such pairings by Oct. 1. If such pairing isn't recommended, the FCC is expected to adopt final rules for how to use the spectrum this year, with the idea of auctioning the spectrum next year.

The CTIA, a trade group representing the interests of mobile operators, said it was very pleased with the FCC's decision. "It is an important step as it supports the efforts by the FCC, Congress and the White House to bring additional spectrum to market so the wireless ecosystem can continue to provide our consumers with the most innovative industry in the world," Steve Largent, CTIA's president and CEO, said in a statement. "As we had argued throughout the proceeding, a designer allocation auction that would be tailored for one company was not in the public's interest, especially when that company was offering broadband service that is slow by even yesterday's standards."

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy's e-mail address is Nancy_Gohring@idg.com

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