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FCC preps puritanical broadband

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It's official. FCC boss Kevin Martin wants a free US-wide wireless broadband network. And he wants it equipped with "family-friendly" content filters.

On Friday, as expected, the US Federal Communications Commission formally unveiled (PDF) a free wireless plan for a portion of the American airwaves known as the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) band. Under the plan, the commission would auction off the spectrum between 2155- and 2180-MHz on the US dial, and the winning bidder would have no choice but to plant a free network on up to 25 per cent of that 25-MHz.

This network would offer open-access to any application and any device. It would provide download speeds of at least 768kbps. And it would include some sort of "network-based filtering mechanism...in order to protect children and families."

Obviously, the FCC has taken a shine to the folks at M2Z Networks. In May 2006, this well-connected start-up asked the commission if it could license a slightly smaller chunk of spectrum (2155-2175MHz, aka the AWS-3 band) for a free broadband network. The FCC eventually said no, but following a lawsuit from the start-up, Kevin Martin's new plan bears an unmistakable resemblance to M2Z's original application.

In its application, for instance, M2Z said that its free ad-driven network would reach at least 50 per cent of the US within four years and 95 per cent within a decade. The FCC has now turned this timetable into a requirement for the winner of its AWS auction.

The main difference is the auction bit. M2Z wanted to license the AWS-3 band directly - without an auction. Plus, the commission has tacked on an extra 5MHz (2175-2180) from the AWS-2 band.

The commission is now taking public comments (PDF) on its proposal. And you can expect vehement objections from the big-name American cellcos - not to mention free speech advocates.

You can bet the cellcos will spew nothing but FUD. The likes of Verizon and AT&T see the US airwaves as their undeniable birthright - and they have no interest in providing free wireless access. But the speech advocates deserve a listen. The FCC hasn't specified what it wants to filter with those content filters, but we have a feeling this could go very wrong. After all, the FCC's puritanical ways continue to make a mockery of US television. ®

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