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FCC free wireless scheme trapped in lobby limbo

Interference hits 'lifeline broadband'

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The US Federal Communications Commission has backed off its plan for a free nationwide wireless broadband network. For the moment.

As we reported last month, the commission was set to vote on this free wireless idea at its June 12th meeting. But after complaints over proposed content filters and possible interference issues, FCC boss Kevin Martin has told the Associated Press the vote is off.

He hopes to resuscitate the plan later this summer. "I want to be clear that I am still very supportive of the cause of providing a lifeline broadband service across the country," he told AP.

This support is relatively new. In May 2006, a Silicon Valley startup known as M2Z Networks asked the commission if it could plant a free ad-driven wireless network on a largely unused slice of the US airwaves known as the AWS-III band, for Advanced Wireless Services. Martin and the FCC sat on this proposal for 15 months, before rejecting it. M2Z actually sued the commission for dawdling - and the suit is still pending.

Then, at some point, Martin took a liking to the M2Z plan.

According to our conversation with the FCC last week, Kev is now pretty much in step with the Menlo Park, California startup. M2Z proposed content filters. And that's what Martin is proposing. M2Z said it would reach 50 per cent of the US population over the next four years and 95 per cent over the next ten. And that is now Martin's timetable. But he won't license spectrum to M2Z - or anyone else - without an open auction. And this will extend beyond the AWS-III band (2155-2175 MHz on the US dial) to the AWS-II band (2175-2180).

If Martin's plan goes through. He's pulled back again.

According to AP, Martin has delayed the June 12 vote because various free speech advocates complained about the content filters and various cell phone operators complained about interference. There are other complaints as well.

Last week, as eWeek points out, the entire CTIA wireless association filed a fresh complaint about the plan, arguing that auctions built around a single business plan are doomed to fail. And The Wall Street Journal weighed in with a hard-hitting editorial that said much the same thing.

Last year, when it set up auction rules for the so-called 700-MHz D Block, The Journal says, the FCC "rigged" things in favor a single company with a gift for the Washington lobby: Frontline Wireless. Frontline soon went titsup - before the auction. And The Journal argues that Martin is about to repeat himself.

It certainly appears that some M2Z lobbying has worked a little magic since the FCC rejected the company's initial complaint. But in recent weeks, lobbying from the other side has worked some magic of its own. ®

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