By Martin Bosworth
Today the FCC set its guidelines for how the newly available wireless spectrum frequencies are to be auctioned. In a nutshell, the FCC agreed that networks built on the new spectrum should enable any device to connect to services built on those networks–which is a win for anyone tired of paying hundreds of dollars for a phone you can’t use if you switch carriers.
But the FCC did not endorse Google’s call for complete “open access,” or the principle that the winner of the auction could sell the spectrum to other companies in order to build new wireless broadband networks–effectively dashing technologists’ hopes of creating a “third pipe” to compete with incumbent telcom and cable companies.
Google has apparently not committed to bidding in the auction anyway, though their telecom policy people were careful to praise Kevin Martin for his moderately audacious move of applying the “Carterfone” standard to wireless companies. And really, that IS important–think about it: You can connect your computer to any ISP you want. You can use your television to watch any cable or satellite provider you want. It is nonsensical that your phone shouldn’t be able to connect to any carrier you want.
But many in the tech blogosphere, like TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington and GigaOm’s Paul Kapustka, see it as I do…that the FCC’s Republican-led majority had an opportunity to make history by opening up the Internet playing field to real competition, but took the timid route to ensure that Verizon and AT&T were placated. I would be loath if I didn’t point out that even the mild, middle-of-the road policy the FCC endorsed was too much for telecom lobbyists like the CTIA and new FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, who both opposed the plan.
Every bit of progress supporters of a free Internet make on this issue is significant…two years ago, no one knew what the phrase “net neutrality” was outside the wonkiest of tech circles. Two months ago, no one would have believed that a staunch telecom ally like Kevin Martin would ever support open networks and open devices. So these ARE real advances, and we should be proud.
But we can do so much better. Until America adopts a national broadband policy that embraces the principles of real competition and equal access for all, Americans will still be stuck with the offerings of market-distorting monopolies, and every step we take will be tinged with the knowledge of the road not taken–how much better we could have done.
And in a country as rich and technologically advanced as ours, that’s not acceptable. We have the capability to bring broadband to all Americans, and we have the will–but there are too many incumbent obstacles still in the way. Until we get through them, or find ways around them, America will still be stuck in the broadband “slow lane.”