FCC, Wireless Providers at Odds Over Plan for Unused Airwaves

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 11, 2008

A report released yesterday by the Federal Communications Commission concluded that using empty airwaves to provide free wireless Internet would not cause major interference with other services, paving the way for FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin's proposal to sell the airwaves at a federal auction.

"We need to reserve some spectrum for free broadband services," Martin said. "This would be lifeline broadband service . . . that would be designed for lower-income people who may not otherwise have access to the Internet."

But several large wireless carriers, including T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and AT&T, argue that using the spectrum will in fact interfere with their own broadband services operating in adjacent airwaves.

T-Mobile has been a vocal opponent of the plan, saying it will cause major disruption for its customers, especially as it rolls out its new G1 phone in partnership with Google.

FCC engineers conducted field tests last month in Seattle to determine the level of static between the services. The FCC concluded that sufficient technical protections would prevent major problems.

Martin's proposal is to auction off the spectrum, with some rules attached. Some of the spectrum would be used for free Internet service, which would have content filters to block material considered inappropriate for children. Adults would be able to get around the filters.

The network would have to reach half of the U.S. population after four years, and 95 percent after 10 years.

"The standards of protection are at least as strong as the standards we use to auction off any other spectrum," Martin said. "The standards are actually going to be tougher" to prevent interference.

The test results are good news for M2Z Networks, a Silicon Valley company with operations in Arlington that wants to use the airwaves to build a "family-friendly," nationwide high-speed network.

In May, Martin indicated he was interested in finding a way to use the spectrum to provide free broadband.

M2Z chief executive John Muleta said the plan's anti-interference rules are more stringent than necessary, given the test results.

Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president of CTIA, the wireless industry's main lobby group in Washington, said the companies that paid billions to buy the adjacent spectrum in 2006 deserve more assurances that their customers will not be affected.

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