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Is Free Internet Really on the Way?

By Reuters  |  Posted 12-03-2008 Print

The FCC is said to be considering a plan to auction public airwaves for free nationwide Internet access.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is likely to consider a plan this month to auction public airwaves with a mandate that the winning bidder set aside some for free Internet nationwide, a proposal staunchly opposed by the cell phone industry.

The plan is championed by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican whose time as chairman is waning as the Obama administration prepares takes office in January. Martin is expected to announce on Tuesday that his proposal will be considered at the commission's December 18 meeting.

It faces several hurdles. The cell phone industry, for example, is arguing that an FCC requirement for free Internet is not a feasible business model for most companies.

Also lining up against Martin's proposal are free speech advocates, who don't like a provision that would require the winning bidder to block pornography and other offensive content from the free Internet access. Another concern is whether investors are willing to create the needed infrastructure for free Internet access in the recession-hit economy.

"Everybody likes the concept--free broadband, free access to the Internet--but in practice, the way the model is set up, it may present problems," said Ben Scott, policy director of advocacy group Free Press.

T-Mobile, a unit of Deutsche Telekom AG, contends that the free Internet component of the proposal would lead to interference with the adjacent spectrum, for which it paid $4.2 billion. The FCC's office of engineering and technology has said there would be no significant interference with other airwaves.

Martin's proposal is similar to one offered by startup M2Z Networks, a group backed by investors including venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

M2Z President John Muleta envisions consumers buying a router for free Internet access at midlevel DSL speed and paying a fee to upgrade to faster service. A lack of competition and rising prices for Internet services are creating consumer demand for cheaper service, he said.

"It is a difficult time in the general marketplace, but this is not the financial services sector," Muleta said. "This is not about subprime loans."


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