Free broadband access is a right, not a privilege

As the FCC nears its vote on whether to open AWS-3 for auction, the Commerce Department has made a stand in favor of stifling innovation

"No one is in control anymore!"

That may sound like a dire call for help in an alien-filled sci-fi movie, but instead it was the happy pronouncement of Milo Medin, co-founder of M2Z Networks, one of the companies awaiting the FCC's decision on whether it will auction AWS-3 (Advanced Wireless Service-3) spectrum.

Should it go through, the auction would require the winner to roll out a free broadband service in a reasonable amount of time and over an area that includes more than just the major cities.

[ For more on AWS-3, see "'Free spectrum' could shape future of wireless" ]

When Medin says, "No one is in control anymore," he simply means that there is no central command, as there was in the bad old days of the Ma Bell network that decided what innovations were allowed. Innovation comes from everywhere and anywhere, and if there is indeed a broadband network that is as accessible and as free as the air we breathe, then Medin believes there will be a flowering of innovation the likes of which we have never seen before.

Unfortunately, just when things were looking brightest, it appears that Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez is trying to ambush that goal. Maybe he too believes that no one will be in control but doesn't like the idea.

On Dec. 10, Gutierrez, who is also considered President Bush's chief advisor on telecommunications, sent a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin opposing the FCC's proposed Dec. 18 vote [PDF] on whether to hold the auction. In the letter, Gutierrez basically says his view is that of the administration, which opposes the auction due to "price and product mandates."

In other words, the price of zero is the problem.

Moreover, the letter states, "It would constrain the provider's use of this spectrum."

Translation: Requiring the winner to provide free broadband access is unacceptable.

According to a Pew study, there are about 100 million Americans, most either in low-income city neighborhoods or in rural areas, without access to broadband [PDF]. And for those who might sneer at the idea and say that giving those folks free broadband access is like having the government guarantee that everyone has a television and cable service, it is not.

Broadband, as Medin sees it, and so do I, is the technology over which everyone will communicate in the next 5 or 10 years. To be without broadband access as a means of communications is to disenfranchise those who can't afford it.

Despite Gutierrez's letter, as recently as 2004 President Bush said, "I'm talking about broadband technology to every corner of our country by the year 2007."

In that same speech Bush went on to say that broadband represents a "flow of information and the flow of knowledge."

Obama spoke of broadband too during one of his Saturday YouTube addresses.

"It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. ... Every child should have the chance to get online, and they'll get that chance when I'm president," Obama said.

Medin says that we don't yet understand what changes will come with free broadband, but we will certainly be able to interact with government better than we do now. Moreover, e-commerce will get fleshed out more, and small business will be able to advertise and conduct commerce in a new way.

There's an excellent article in the New York Times, "YouTube Videos Pull in Real Money," about how people are earning in some cases more than $100,000 a year by allowing Google to place ads within their popular YouTube videos. Practically speaking, without broadband you can't watch YouTube.

"NASA allowed students to control a telescope that was in a plane flying over the southern hemisphere," Medin tells me. "While the students moved the telescope to view different locations in the sky, astronomers explained to the students what they were seeing. These kinds of things take education out of the classroom."

And they make it far less dull than when I went to school.

But before that happens, the FCC needs to play ball.

AWS-3 operates in the 2,155MHz-to-2,180MHz band and has lain fallow for years. I wrote more in depth on AWS-3 and the future of wireless in a recent blog.

Perhaps not surprisingly, incumbent network providers don't want to see the auction go through, and they have been using a variety of means to stop it -- from delaying the process to claiming it interfered with their current networks. The FCC has tested AWS-3 and concluded that it does not.

Only three votes are needed to approve the auction, but unfortunately it isn't that simple.

First FCC Chairman Martin has to allow the proposal to come to a vote. Considering both Bush's and Obama's stated belief on broadband, this should be a no-brainer. To help Martin do the right thing I suggest you send Chairman Martin an e-mail telling him to bring the AWS-3 auction to a vote as scheduled on Dec. 18.

Our future depends on it.

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