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FCC boss mulls free* wireless for all

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The US Federal Communications Commission is mulling a plan that would blanket America with free wireless broadband. Not to mention online ads and content filters.

On Friday, as reported by RCR Wireless News, FCC boss Kevin Martin told some reporter types that the commission may auction off another 25-MHz of largely unused wireless spectrum and require the winning bidder to offer some sort of free access to penny-pinching Americans.

The 25-MHz swath covers the so-called AWS-III band, for Advanced Wireless Services, and using this slice of the airwaves for free broadband is hardly a new idea. In May 2006, a Silicon Valley startup known as M2Z Networks asked the FCC if it could plant a free wireless network on the AWS-III band without waiting for an open auction, and a copy-cat firm, dubbed Netfree US, soon followed suit.

Planning to offer "fast, free and family-friendly broadband to 95 per cent of the US population within ten years," M2Z suggested the commission hand over a license to the band in exchange for a cut of its future revenue. Naturally, these dollars would arrive via advertising on the free bandwidth and "premium subscription services" that aren't free.

The FCC sat on this idea for fifteen months. Then, last September, it officially spiked the two applications, saying it wanted to sit on the idea some more.

This annoyed M2Z co-founder John Muleta, who served as the head of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau between 2003 and 2005. Speaking to The Reg, he threatened to sue his former employer for dawdling over the issue. Days later, M2Z made good on his threat.

Sitting between 2155 and 2175MHz on the US dial, the AWS-III band has gone largely unused for the past seven years, and M2Z sees this is an awfully long time. "From the day we showed up, there was nothing preventing the commission from saying 'good idea guys' or 'bad idea guys.' They could have at least gotten the process going and started looking for other ideas, but they didn't do that," Muleta told us. "That's not the way a speedy government ought to work."

Well, another nine months have passed. And the FCC is now ready to say "good idea guys". The commission won't license the AWS-III band without an auction. And it's tossing in the AWS-II band (2175-2180MHz) as well. But it looks like the auction rules will owe more than a small debt to the plan laid down by M2Z.

Chairman Martin said the commission may vote on rules for a possible auction at its June 12 meeting - if not sooner - and he indicated the auction's winning bidder would have no choice but to touch 50 per cent of the US population with free bandwidth over the next four years and 95 per cent by the end of the license term.

But it isn't just M2Z pushing this idea. The FCC is also facing pressure from another front. Last month, two US lawmakers - Anna Eshoo of California and Christopher Cannon of Utah - introduced a bill in the House of Representatives calling for a "free, family-friendly" wireless network.

Or maybe that's pressure from the same front. "The winner of the auction would be required to build and complete a network within 10 years that must provide coverage to at least 95 per cent of our country," read Eshoo's press release.

The family-friendly bit means some sort of content filtering. And it appears the FCC likes this idea too - though the commission didn't respond to our requests for comment.

At its June 12 meeting, the FCC will also make a final decision on Skype's petition to require open-access to the length and breadth of the US airwaves. And you can bet this will be rejected too. Kevin Martin believes that after an earlier nudge, Verizon and the gang will open up the American airwaves all on their own. ®

Update

The commission has responded, confirming that Kevin Martin intends to require some sort of content filter on the free broadband network slated for the AWS-II/III band. We also heard back from M2Z John Muleta, who indicated the company intends to bid on the band if it's put up for auction. But you already knew that.

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