Google's battle for wireless spectrum

Chris Sacca, head of special initiatives, talks about the company's plans for the upcoming 700MHz spectrum auction.

An upcoming Federal Communications Commission spectrum auction is pitting search giant Google against the largest phone companies in the country in a public-policy battle that could determine how Americans access the Internet in the future.

The 700MHz spectrum, which has been used to provide analog TV service, is considered the last piece of prime real estate left among wireless airwaves because it's able to travel long distances and penetrate walls. Everyone from mobile operators to public-safety companies to Google sees the spectrum as a perfect opportunity to extend mobile broadband services.

Google's plans to participate in the auction is a move likely to upset the traditional spectrum auction applecart.

The company is pushing the FCC to adopt rules in the upcoming 700-megahertz auction set to ensure that winners of certain spectrum licenses will have to adhere to four openness principles. These include guaranteeing that consumers can use any device or software on the network, as well as forcing winning bidders to offer spectrum at reasonable wholesale prices to ensure that small companies can get access to wireless capacity to build competitive wireless services.

AT&T and Verizon Wireless, the two largest wireless operators in the United States, say they would accept an open-access rule for devices, but they are against any rules guaranteeing open access for companies seeking to buy wholesale capacity.

Chris Sacca, head of special initiatives at Google, is in charge of looking for alternative forms of broadband access for the company. And he's one of the leaders in Google's fight in Washington to guarantee open access in the upcoming auction.

Up to this point, Sacca, who came to Google in 2003, was best known for initiating Google's free citywide Wi-Fi projects being built in San Francisco and Mountain View, Calif.

CNET talked with Sacca recently to find out why this issue is so important to Google, whether the company really plans on bidding in the auction slated for early next year, and what it plans to do with the licenses if it wins them. Below are edited excerpts of the conversation.

Q: Why is Google so interested in the upcoming 700MHz auction?
Sacca: The 700MHz spectrum auction represents the last big chance that the United States has to create an opportunity for meaningful change in access to the Internet for the broadest set of people possible.

We have fought hard on a number of fronts to make the Internet as available as possible to the largest number of people as possible. Right now, the Internet is not available in too many places. And it's still too expensive for most folks.

But why is Google, in particular, interested in this spectrum?
Sacca: I think it's consistent with our company mission statement and consistent with our history of interaction with users. We have fought hard on a number of fronts to make the Internet as available as possible to the largest number of people as possible. Right now, the Internet is not available in too many places. And it's still too expensive for most folks.

If Google bids and wins licenses in the spectrum auction, does the company have plans to build and operate its own wireless network, or would it wholesale the capacity to other providers?
Sacca: The strategy is best defined by the goal. And the goal is, "What is going to make the Internet most available to the broadest number of people at the lowest price possible?"

Right now, in an environment where there isn't a lot of competition in the wireline or the wireless space, we have seen the impact. Prices are too high, availability is restricted to some geographic areas, and too many people are left off the Net.

But today, there are at least four nationwide carriers to choose from in almost every major city. So competition seems to be working well in the wireless market, wouldn't you say?
Sacca: But four doesn't necessarily create a competitive environment. And four doesn't necessarily reflect what consumers demand. Think of the issue of local-number portability. For years, consumers demanded the ability to take their mobile-phone numbers to another operator, and it wasn't until the FCC actually acted and mandated number portability that it became a reality.

So this isn't an entirely competitive marketplace right now. Prices are still way too high, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a large number of consumers who are satisfied with the cost of their service, the availability of their service and the features that the service offers.

To go back to my question, does Google want to own and operate a wireless network of its own?
Sacca: Google is willing to do anything necessary to introduce some competition into this space and to really drive the prices of service to where they are most affordable to the broadest number of people. It is reprehensible that there are still so many people left off the Net.

That entails everything from building and operating a network, if necessary, to partnering with the vast number of companies left out of this game--for whom $5 billion is an insurmountable hurdle to participate meaningfully in an auction that could introduce true competition--to any of the existing carriers, if they want to put users first in their business models and prioritize those customer experiences.

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