By Martin Bosworth
The Federal Communications Commission recently announced plans to auction off portions of the wireless spectrum in order to raise money for the government. Although supporters of net neutrality and broadband access wanted the spectrum to remain open in order to build a national wireless broadband network, it was generally expected that incumbent telecoms like AT&T and Verizon would use their mountains of cash to outbid other participants and hoard the spectrum for their own offerings.
Until now. Google has publicly promised $4.6 billion for the spectrum auction if the FCC agrees to uphold four principles of open access for its use:
- Open applications: consumers should be able to download and utilize any software applications, content, or services they desire;
- Open devices: consumers should be able to utilize their handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they prefer;
- Open services: third parties (resellers) should be able to acquire wireless services from a 700 MHz licensee on a wholesale basis, based on reasonably nondiscriminatory commercial terms; and
- Open networks: third parties (like Internet service providers) should be able to interconnect at any technically feasible point in a 700 MHz licensee’s wireless network.
This is an incredible development that set the technology news community collectively ablaze. More importantly, it’s as bold a statement as one can make to the spawn of Ma Bell that they are no longer the only game in town when it comes to building America’s Internet future.
Incumbents enjoy far too many advantages in the communication world that distort the market and preclude real competition. It’s that market power that enables cell phone companies to lock you into long-term contracts and charge punitive fees for breaking your contract. It’s that market power that enables overpaid telecom lobbyists to hand-puppet the FCC and push through industry-approved video franchising rights which enable telecoms to bypass cable regulations and offer the same services–and only in the richest and best neighborhoods to boot.
And it’s that market power that enables incumbent telecoms to continue to reap profits from overpriced, underperforming services while our country continues to slide down the ladder of broadband connectivity for its people.
But Google’s challenge represents a watershed moment in telecom history–a moment when a true “third pipe” could actually be visualized as an alternative to typical cable and telecom companies’ service. The battle is far from won, but the stakes have just been raised to a tremendous level, and everyone who’s concerned about America’s Internet future needs to pay attention.