FCC helps Google's open-access bid

After fits and starts, the Federal Communications Commission handed a partial victory to Google July 31 in the company's bid to ensure open access to the 700 MHz band that is to be auctioned to cell phone service providers.

Some analysts consider the wireless band to be the last chance for new players in the cell phone market. It is being made available because the TV broadcasters who currently occupy the range are moving to digital TV transmission in February 2009.

Google had announced that it was willing to bid at least $4.6 billion in the upcoming 700 MHz auction, but only if the government placed some conditions requiring open access to the spectrum.

Specifically, Google called for four changes in requirements for the band:
  • Consumers should be able to download and use any software applications, content or services they desire.
  • Consumers should be able to use a handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they prefer.
  • Resellers should be able to acquire wireless services from a 700 MHz licensee on a wholesale basis, based on reasonably nondiscriminatory commercial terms.
  • Third parties such as Internet service providers should be able to interconnect at any technically feasible point on a 700 MHz licensee's wireless network.
Critics, including CTIA, the organization that represents the international wireless telecommunications industry, have charged that Google is more interested in securing open-access requirements than in winning the license.

In a letter from CTIA to the FCC, officials wrote, “If Google is willing to commit almost $5 billion for spectrum that it wants encumbered with various requirements, then let it win that spectrum in a competitive auction and choose that business model. Google and its allies, with their collective market capitalization approaching half a trillion dollars, don't need a government handout at taxpayers' expense. The competitive wireless industry welcomes all new entrants, but no company should be able to buy a custom-fit government regulation that suits their particular business plan. Consumers should decide if they're right, not the federal government.”

Under the rules the FCC released July 31, however, Google was largely victorious. Under the ruling, consumers will be able to use whatever phone and software they want on networks that use a portion of the spectrum to be auctioned.

However, the FCC did not approve one of Google’s requirements: a provision that would have required the winner of the auction to sell access to its network on a wholesale basis to other companies.

The FCC ruling also reserves a portion of the band for public safety agencies to use. Another portion will be reserved for a “public safety/private partnership.” Under the ruling, the commercial company that wins the auction will build a nationwide, interoperable broadband network for public safety use. In an emergency, public safety agencies would have priority access to that portion of the band.

The FCC’s ruling is a sign of progress, said Richard Whitt, Google’s Washington telecommunications and media counsel. “By the same token, it would have been a more complete victory for consumers had the FCC adopted all four of the license conditions that we advocated, in order to pave the way for the real ‘third pipe’ broadband competition that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has been touting,” Whitt said.

As for whether Google will bid on the spectrum, he said, “We will need time to carefully study the actual text of the FCC's rules, due out in a few weeks, before we can make any definitive decisions about our possible participation in the auction.”

Patrick Marshall writes for Government Computer News, an 1105 Government Information Group publication.

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