Thursday, August 02, 2007

FCC Does the Right Thing...Sorta


There's a word most of us suits hate. We hate thinking about the little packets of information flying around that bring us our e-mail, and whether those packets are traveling along cables under the ocean or bouncing off satellites above the atmosphere. We just want to know for sure that the message will get there.

But every now and then we have to at least try and apply our brains to questions of infrastructure, and one of those times was three days ago, when the FCC issued its long-awaited rules for the auction of the C block of the 700 Mhz airwave spectrum (A and B are reserved for local use). The spectrum is being reclaimed by act of Congress from UHF television stations with channels from 52 to 69. Those stations are required to switch to digital by 2009.

It's a big, big deal because it's the biggest block of bandwidth to be sold for the foreseeable future and w0uld allow the purchaser to massively expand its footprint. On top of which, this so-called "beachfront" wavelength is great for going through walls, perfect for urban settings.

The auction itself won't take place till January, and is only open to well-funded bidders: the reserve price is a cool $4.6 billion. But at issue--before companies even decide if they'll bid or not--is what conditions, if any, the winning bidder will have to follow. Major telecom firms like AT&T were lobbying hard for no conditions at all. Google--and consumer groups--were lobbying for a set of four conditions that would have forced the bandwidth to openness, requiring the winner to accept all devices and all applications, forcing the winner to sell the bandwidth wholesale to other services, and requiring its network to accept third-party connections (from ISPs, for example) anywhere on the network.

The four conditions, experts say, would have set the stage for a "third pipe"--large-scale delivery of wireless high-speed Internet to rival the first two "pipes"--cable and DSL. (Note to those of you reading this in a cafe or park over a wireless connection--your Internet signal is almost certainly a wireless rebroadcast of a signal delivered by cable or DSL.)

The FCC didn't go for the third pipe, but it did take up the first two of the suggested requirements: the bandwidth must be open to all devices and all applications. Among other things, this means that in 2009, you should be able to switch your mobile phone company without having to switch to a different phone.

Observers are now speculating as to whether Google will bid on the bandwidth. There seems no logical reason why not--after all if it wins it can choose to implement all four conditions--but perhaps the real goal was to keep the price (relatively) down by making the bandwidth less attractive to the telecoms it would be bidding against.

That remains to be seen. Meantime it's nice to know--even if we're not getting that third pipe--that more open days are coming.


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