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US loses last chance for free wireless

Never a flyer, but finally grounded for good

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An audacious plan to provide free wireless internet access across the US has finally been killed off by the FCC, much to the delight of the cellular industry.

Last Friday the FCC officially notified M2Z Networks that the AWS-3 spectrum would be auctioned off towards the middle of next year, along with a load of other spectrum as part of the National Broadband Plan, rather than handed over for nothing in the interests of peace, love and free wireless.

That rather scuppered M2Z's plan to use the 20MHz of spectrum to create a national WiMAX network. The plan was to make money on advertising and selling high-speed connections, while providing low-rate data for free. The spectrum has been empty for almost a decade, so M2Z thought it might just move in for nothing.

The problem is that running WiMAX at 2155MHz (where the 20MHz of AWS-3 spectrum is) would risk interfering with neighbouring operations, for which the incumbent operators paid so much. Not to mention the small fact that M2Z's business model was reliant on it being given the spectrum for nothing - something the other operators were never going to tolerate:.

"Contrary to M2Z’s statements, this is absolutely in line with the National Broadband Plan," said a statement from industry-body the CTIA. "It is an important step ... to bring additional spectrum to market so the wireless ecosystem can continue to provide our consumers with the most innovative industry in the world."

This is not a position with which M2Z agrees, obviously. The company claims that it "would have created tens of thousands of direct and indirect jobs throughout the country while giving all Americans an equal opportunity to participate in the digital economy".

M2Z should not be surprised at this stage. The FCC has promised to find 200MHz of ready-to-auction radio spectrum by October with a view to flogging it off early next year. AWS-3 was an obvious target, and this is not just because all the existing operators hate M2Z.

The concept of free wireless is one thing; the practicalities are another. Questions about access to pornography, or worse, and the viability of the business model have never been properly resolved, and with LightSquared already building a new national network in America there are questions about how many networks the country needs.

But if anyone does decide to build another network then they're going to have to pay for the spectrum to run it over, so they probably won't be giving access away for free. ®

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