On its face, the spectrum auction plan being floated by FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin seems like a good idea. Martin wants to sell 25 MHz of spectrum in the 2155 to 2180 MHz band but mandate that the winners offer free Wi-Fi access and filter out indecent content on part of the spectrum. Winners would be able to use the remainder for commercial purposes.
Advanced Wireless Spectrum III (AWS III) winners would be mandated to serve half the population of the U.S. within four years and 95 percent within a decade. The sketchy details are expected to be clarified on at an FCC meeting on June 12.
There are all sorts of interesting issues in play. Of course, the goal of providing free broadband to those who can't afford it -- addressing the digital divide -- is a laudable one. The fact is, however, that municipal Wi-Fi already took a crack at this and failed. It could be that a vast majority of people who want broadband service and have the requisite equipment don't need free service. Indeed, lack of demand, not management missteps, may have been the killer of the first iteration of municipal Wi-Fi.
There is a legitimate question of whether there will be demand for such services in the wake of the 700 MHz auction that was held earlier this year. There also is a back story that needs to be illuminated. According to Lynnette Luna at Fierce Wireless, there have been previous proposals along these lines. Most prominently, a companied called M2Z Networks in 2006 had a similar idea denied because its approach didn't include an auction.
This Wireless Connectivity post provides some more information on M2Z. Co-founder John Muleta headed the FCC's wireless division from 2003 to 2005 and subsequently took the commission to court for not moving on his application, though the story doesn't say what became of the suit. The problem was that the FCC neither approved nor disapproved applications from M2Z and another company, Netfree US, for an inordinate amount of time. Muleta says that he intends to bid on the spectrum if it is put at auction.
The question that emerges, then, is why the FCC didn't think the M2Z approach was feasible in the days before the availability of WiMax, cheap DSL and cable modems and faster dialup services -- but likes the idea now. It may be coincidental that two members of the House of Representatives -- Anna Eshoo (Dem.--CA) and Christopher Cannon (Rep.--Utah) -- have introduced a bill calling for free wireless. It's interesting that Eshoo's press release calls for the same 95 percent coverage in 10 years.
An idealist could see an honest effort to provide broadband services to the disenfranchised. A cynic could see a grandstand play during an election year. A realist could see a bumbling and unresponsive bureaucracy. Whatever a person's position on those questions, everyone should ask if such an auction will generate much interest.