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FCC opens up US wireless spectrum

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The FCC has decreed that Americans will have the freedom to connect any device and any application to a prized portion of the country's wireless spectrum. But Google's still grumbling.

Today, following the lead of Chairman Kevin Martin, the Federal Communications Commission attached an "open-access requirement" to a portion of the so-called 700-MHz wireless band, due to be auctioned off by the commission early next year. Under new FCC rules, the winner of the auction is required to treat 22 MHz of radio spectrum much like the attach-what-you-want wired internet.

Joining forces with various public advocacy groups and companies like Skype, Google has spent the past several weeks urging the FCC to open up the 700-MHz band, a chunk of the U.S radio spectrum recently vacated by TV channels making the switch to digital transmission. Last week, the search giant even announced plans to bid in the upcoming auction, saying it would lay down $4.6bn if the FCC met all of its open-access requirements.

Well, the FCC did not comply.

Google was lobbying the commission to give users the ability to attach any device and any application to the band, and it's pleased that this requirement is now in place. But Google also demanded a "wholesale condition," which would require the auction winner to resell wireless bandwidth to other businesses, so that they too could offer access to end-users. This is not part of the new auction rules.

"In Google's view, the FCC made real but incomplete progress this afternoon on behalf of consumers as it set the rules for the 700MHz auction," said Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel, during a conference call with reporters.

Google and its coalition of public advocates are working to provide consumers with more online choices, arguing that big name telecoms like AT&T and Verizon have too much control over the wireless spectrum as well as the broadband internet market. DSL and cable providers, they argue, control 96 per cent of the country's broadband access, and if the U.S. radio spectrum is opened up, it could give consumers a viable third option.

They want an open-access requirement applied to the entire U.S. spectrum - not just the 22MHz portion alloted by the FCC - and they want a wholesale condition in place that can drive competition among providers. "The big opportunity was the wholesale condition," said Ben Scott, Washington policy director for Free Press, another coalition member. "What that would have done is create a wireless broadband market that looked like the dial-up market of the late 90s, where users had hundreds of vendors to choose from."

Will Google still bid for the spectrum? With the FCC yet to release the full text for its new rules, the Mountain View outfit won't say one way or the other. "Under the current circumstances, we are going to need some time to carefully study the actual text of the FCC rules, which are due out n a few weeks, before we make any decision about our possible role in the auction," Whitt said. ®

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