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Politicos want free wireless broadband on unused airwaves

A new bill in Congress would require fallow radio spectrum to be auctioned off, with the winning bidder obligated to provide free service to 95 percent of Americans within a decade.

This story was updated at 11:40 a.m. PDT with correct units for DSL broadband speeds currently on the market.

A Silicon Valley Democrat in the U.S. Congress is proposing a new auction of unused radio spectrum, but with some ambitious strings attached: The winner would have to offer a free, wireless broadband network that reaches 95 percent of the American population within a decade.

Voicing disappointment that familiar large wireless carriers scooped up the most significant share of airwaves in a recently concluded auction, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) on Thursday introduced the Wireless Internet Nationwide for Families Act, which would direct the Federal Communications Commission to auction off a band of wireless spectrum between 2,155 megahertz and 2,180MHz that currently lies fallow and impose detailed rules on the winning bidder. Rep. Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who leads a House telecommunications and Internet panel, and Rep. Chris Cannon, a Utah Republican, have signed on as co-sponsors.

Under the proposed measure, aside from offering the free broadband network, the network operator would have to:
• begin offering "always-on" broadband service within two years of receiving the license
• offer a service free of subscription fees, airtime, usage or other charges to consumers and "authorized public safety users"
• ensure the service offers at least 200 kilobits per second transmission speeds in at least one direction (a far cry from the 768 kilobits per second speeds associated with most entry-level DSL lines)
• outfit the free service with "a technology protection measure or measures that protect underage users from accessing obscene or indecent material through such service"
• publish royalty-free standards so that others can develop and deploy equipment that can operate on the network

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) U.S. House of Representatives

"While the auction required under this legislation is open to anyone, it is my hope that the bold conditions of requiring free, family friendly service will encourage the entry of a new kind of national broadband service provider," Eshoo said in a statement.

The requirements, however, sound strikingly similar to a plan that a Silicon Valley start-up called M2Z Networks offered to the FCC in recent years.

Specifically, M2Z sought permission to obtain a 15-year exclusive, nationwide license to essentially the same band of spectrum described in the Eshoo bill. It wanted to offer a "free," advertising-supported tier of service that would offer speeds of at least 384Kbps down and 128Kbps up, and a "premium" tier with 3Mbps speeds. And, like the Eshoo bill, M2Z pledged to reach 95 percent of the American population within 10 years and outfit the free tier with filters designed to block obscene content.

The FCC dismissed that petition, opting to undertake its usual public comment and rulemaking process before deciding who would control the spectrum. It has reportedly already begun moving ahead with that process, although it wasn't clear when it would finish.

An Eshoo aide said her boss had conversations with M2Z while drafting the bill, but her motivation was "primarily to provide alternative means of broadband access for more Americans, and this fallow spectrum seemed to be a real opportunity."

M2Z CEO John Muleta said the bill's introduction is a hopeful sign for would-be new entrants like his firm. "What we've been advocating for is, there needs to be new entry, not necessarily more regulation, to do innovative and unusual things that would get more broadband to more people," he said in a telephone interview with CNET

An array of consumer groups supported M2Z's idea, but the wireless industry opposed its original petition, calling it a "self-serving attempt to gain access to valuable spectrum outside of the auction process."

The new House proposal doesn't appear to be much better in the industry's eyes. Joe Farren, a spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, said his group objects to the stringent conditions it would impose on bidders, saying flexible conditions would ultimately raise more money for the federal treasury.

"We agree with Congresswoman Eshoo that additional spectrum must be made available and we look forward to working with her on this important endeavor," he said in an e-mail on Friday. "However, mandating how providers should deploy and use such spectrum is something we can't support."