As the government prepares to auction off a prized slice of wireless spectrum early next year, Google and a number of consumer advocacy groups have been pressuring federal regulators to impose some form of "open access" rules that would prevent only a few companies from controlling the coveted space.
It appears the Federal Communications Commission may be poised to grant their request, according to various reports.
According to draft auction ground rules seen by a Dow Jones reporter, the regulators are entertaining the idea of attaching open-access conditions to more than one-third of the portion of the 700 MHz broadcast TV band that they plan to auction off.
Freeing up that spectrum for public safety and commercial uses is the major purpose of a long-discussed shift from analog to digital television scheduled for 2009. The band is such a hot commodity because its signals can travel farther and easily penetrate walls, which could foster cheaper, and more widespread, wireless broadband networks.
An unnamed FCC official cited in the Dow Jones story said that two 11 MHz blocks would be bound by open access principles, which would mean that spectrum operators would have to allow consumers to use the wireless devices they wish and to load the applications they desire onto their gadgets, so long as they don't harm the network.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin seemed to confirm the agency was headed in that direction in an interview with USA Today published Monday. He was quoted as saying, "Whoever wins this spectrum has to provide...a truly open broadband network--one that will open the door to a lot of innovative services for consumers."
Martin also reportedly said he was troubled that some wireless handset makers, at the request of U.S. mobile carriers, have stripped out features like Wi-Fi, whereas in Europe, consumers have had wider access to "unlocked" phones for years.
Major wireless carriers have resisted calls for "open access" requirements for the upcoming auction because they say such decisions should be decided by the market. If companies like Google want to make use of the spectrum, they should bid accordingly and hope they win, not seek help through new regulations, the industry has said.
Google's Washington telecommunications and media counsel, Richard Whitt, said in a blog post Tuesday morning that his company was still weighing whether it would make its own bids. After consulting with various experts, however, he added that the search giant had determined existing wireless carriers are likely to prevail against new mobile market entrants like Google--that is, unless the FCC requires various forms of openness.
Whitt said he was also hearing "through the proverbial grapevine" that the FCC rules may be aligned with Google's wishes. "Obviously we'll need to see the fine print, but such a proposal would represent a step forward for new, innovative entrants to the broadband market," he wrote.
A final version of the rules is expected to be made public by late July or early August, according to Dow Jones, and would then go to a vote before the five-member commission. Meanwhile, a House of Representatives committee on Wednesday morning plans to examine a similar set of issues at a hearing entitled "Wireless Innovation and Consumer Protection." (Click here for a PDF with more information.)
Stay tuned to CNET News.com for coverage of Wednesday's congressional hearing and further analysis of the upcoming auction rules.
Update at 11:15 a.m. PDT: At least one public-interest group that has been lobbying for open access rules--and their parallel on the Internet side, Net neutrality--is skeptical about just how "open" the FCC plans to make portions of the auctioned spectrum.
In a blog post later on Tuesday morning, Public Knowledge spokesman Art Brodsky said it's great that Martin wants to allow consumers to have access to the mobile devices of their choosing. But if the FCC truly wants competition in the wireless broadband space, technology companies and public-interest groups want to see a requirement that spectrum auction winners "offer a slice of the space on a wholesale basis with no rules on what types of services or equipment could be offered," he wrote.
Based on the news reports, it's hardly clear that's what Martin has in mind. Brodsky said he hoped other commissioners would be able to persuade him otherwise.
Another update at 12:45 p.m. PDT: On the free-market-leaning side of the debate, Scott Cleland, who runs a group called Net Competition that represents the telecommunications and cable industries, has blasted the FCC's potential actions as "a multi-billion corporate welfare subsidy grant to Google." (Net Competition also despises the idea of Net neutrality laws.)
In a blog entry, he said open access rules are completely unnecessary and could lead to a repeat of an early-1990s "fiasco" in which "hyper-regulatory conditions" on a spectrum auction left a chunk of it "fallow and in legal limbo." And besides, there's nothing stopping Google from bidding on the spectrum--after all, it's "no poverty case," Cleland wrote--and imposing its own open access requirements if it wins.