Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The FCC Closes a Window to an Open Internet

Too often in the give and take of media policymaking it's government officials that are giving, corporate giants that are taking, and the public that's left with little in the exchange.

This was the case yesterday as the Federal Communications Commission decided to sell off licenses to an invaluable chunk of public airwaves with few conditions to ensure that Americans gain from the deal.


FCC Commissioners

The spectrum in question -- the 700 MHz band – will be returned to Americans after TV broadcasters shift from an analog (and spectrum hogging) format to a more compressed digital signal.

Closing the Gap

These airwaves represent our last best chance to connect tens of millions of Americans to an open and affordable Internet. They can carry a wireless Internet signal through concrete buildings and over mountains – a signal that can single-handedly close the digital divide for people in both rural and urban America who are now being bypassed by the likes of AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.

With the agency’s decision, however, it’s more likely that this same phone and cable cartel will use their political and financial muscle to control wireless Internet access in the country. The same companies already dictate “wired” broadband access for more than 96% of residential users.

These politically-connected corporations don’t see this new spectrum as a chance to blow open the marketplace. Rather they’ll squander it to protect the status quo – an Internet business model where Americans pay them higher prices for slower speeds compared to access in many Western European and Asian countries.

Open the Network, Unleashing Competition

Had the FCC opted to attach open conditions to these airwaves, the agency would have unleashed the creative forces of the marketplace onto an Internet that is now suffocating under the weight of a few cozy providers.

More than a quarter-million citizens filed comments to the FCC urging the agency to inject such broadband competition into the marketplace by creating a so-called “third pipe,” a national wireless Internet network to compete head-to-head with DSL and cable.

A proposal put before the agency by public advocates, consumer organizations and technology companies would have helped make this "third pipe" a reality. Their solution: create one nationwide wireless Internet license that would be offered to new competitors on a wholesale basis – a model known as "open access" that has proven immensely successful for European nations.

Repercussions from a Bad Decision

In America, open access would pry open the market to new businesses, start ups, entrepreneurs and providers, spurring competition and innovation while driving down costs to the consumer. It would be a boon for the mobile Internet, at a time when a flurry of new devices such as the iPhone are coming available to users.

Instead the FCC chose a course that will keep us behind the pace of countries that have embraced open networks.

Our last, best chance to propel us into an era of Internet innovation and creativity was squandered by an agency that too often confuses corporate welfare with public service.

The FCC decision should be a call to arms for consumer advocates, public interest groups, Internet entrepreneurs and concerned citizens across the country. Unless we amplify calls for true open access, the repercussions of this sell off of the airwaves will be felt for generations to come.

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