FCC Puts Nationwide Wireless Broadband on Back Burner

The Federal Communications Commission canceled a meeting scheduled to plan how to divvy up wireless spectrum for a free, nationwide broadband Internet network.

The announcement on Saturday came after Democratic lawmakers including Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Rep. Henry Waxman of California asked FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to delay any FCC business outside of the mandatory switch to digital television signals, which is set to occur in February.

The FCC’s move was met with approval from the CTIA, the wireless industry’s largest lobbying group. The CTIA has opposed the FCC proposal to auction off a large portion of spectrum for the purpose of creating a free nationwide broadband network on numerous grounds.

Nationwide Wireless Network

For the past few years, a small, venture-based company, M2Z Networks, has been trying to find a way to cover all of the U.S. with a wireless broadband network. To do so, the Menlo Park, Calif.-based startup needs access to the very spectrum the FCC is considering for auction.

Led by wireless operator T-Mobile USA and the CTIA, the wireless industry has been a vocal opponent of the FCC’s plan, saying it would unfairly favor the interests of M2Z Networks over the rest of the industry.

“The proposal [FCC Chairman Kevin Martin] put forth is tailor made to one company’s business model,” Paul Garnett, a CTIA spokesperson, told the E-Commerce Times.

CTIA has another reason for its objection: The spectrum in question sits in a band very close to spectrum owned by T-Mobile, and it could cause interference with that carrier’s current service, Garnett said.

The FCC’s engineers concluded in October that there is existing technology that could prevent any interference from occurring, but CTIA doesn’t buy it.

“We have no confidence in the FCC’s assertions,” Garnett said. “Top engineers who have built networks in the past tell us that the FCC’s assertions are not only flawed, but that they were written to support a predetermined outcome.”

Digital TV Switch Smokescreen?

In any case, the FCC’s Thursday meeting was ostensibly canceled for a different reason: the request from lawmakers that the agency concentrate its efforts on the upcoming switch to digital-only television signals.

Yet there is no tangible connection between the spectrum in question and the switch to digital television, according to Charles Golvin, a wireless telecom analyst at Forrester Research.

“The two are completely unrelated issues,” Golvin told the E-Commerce Times.

What’s more likely is that lawmakers and the FCC are responding to the pressure put on them by the wireless industry.

“There may be some additional pressure from very strong lobbying efforts,” said Golvin. “T-Mobile is the only one with service near that band of spectrum, but AT&T and Verizon could also … be subject to the same kind of interference issues that T-Mobile is facing.”

Also, a new FCC chairman may end up replacing Martin once President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January, and there may be some hesitation on the part of lawmakers to make this particular decision until the new chairman is in place, Golvin said.

Need for Broadband

Fifty-six percent of U.S. households have a broadband Internet connection of one kind or another, according to a survey Forrester conducted in February.

That leaves 44 percent of households without high-speed Internet, based on responses to the survey. About 12 percent of the participants said they still used dial-up services, 20 percent had no Internet connection at all, and another 20 percent either didn’t know or didn’t answer that survey question.

Making broadband available to a wider population would be good for consumers and the economy, Golvin said.

“Government services could be made faster and more efficient with broadband,” he noted, “and the number of industries that would benefit from wider access to broadband covers a large swathe, including retail and telecommunications infrastructure.”

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