Although disappointed that large incumbent carriers won the biggest prizes in the 700-MHz auction this week, some open-network advocates still say the auction could be a good first step.
Some open-network advocates say the federal government's 700-MHz auction could be a good first step toward giving American consumers access to a truly open wireless network.
Sascha Meinrath, the research director for the New America Foundation's Wireless Future Program, says the 700-MHz auction went "exactly as expected," with big carriers Verizon and AT&T scoring big wins on the so-called "C" and "B" blocks of spectrum, respectively. Now that the spectrum has been allotted to the victors, he says, the future of open mobile broadband networks in the United States now hinges upon how vigorously the FCC enforces the open-access regulations it placed on the C Block, the 22-MHz chunk of spectrum that Verizon bid more than US$4.5 billion for the rights to operate.
The C Block is a particularly valuable piece of spectrum because it provides the broadest range of coverage over any spectrum available in the auction, and could potentially hold the key to building out a nationwide open-access wireless network. The FCC placed open-access rules on the block last year that will prohibit Verizon from blocking or slowing Internet traffic from competing carriers using the network, or from discriminating against devices trying to connect to the network. The commission adopted the rules in response to heavy lobbying from Google and consumer-advocacy groups.
Meinrath says while the open-access rules have the right intent behind them, they are broadly written and can be open to different interpretations. Thus the future composition of the FCC, and whether its members are strongly committed to the principle of open networks, will determine just how open the C-Block spectrum really is.
Tim Karr, the campaign director for media advocacy group Free Press, says Verizon's past opposition to open networks means that the carrier should be trusted and that consumer groups will have to pressure the FCC to strictly enforce its own rules.
"I don't see Verizon doing anything in the wireless space to threaten their status quo of control over the broadband marketplace," he says. "We need to remain vigilant to ensure that Verizon honors the FCC conditions in a way that brings real consumer choice into a still-closed marketplace."
Karr also says the FCC should expand openness conditions to all wireless networks used by consumers, and not only the C Block. He thinks that unless the FCC is active in prodding Verizon and other carriers toward more openness, then Verizon's victory in the auction will leave "slim prospects for genuine Internet competition via a wireless 'third pipe.'"
Google, which did not win any actual spectrum in the auction, has so far expressed more optimism over the auction results than some of the consumer advocacy groups. In a post on Google's public policy blog, Google attorneys Richard Whitt and Joseph Farber called the auction "a major victory for consumers" and predicted that "consumers soon should begin enjoying new, Internet-like freedom to get the most out of their mobile phones and other wireless devices." Google also said that it couldn't comment in further detail on the auction results because it might violate the FCC's anti-collusion rules for the auction, but promised that it would have "more to say in the near future."
So now that Verizon has officially won the precious C-block 700MHz spectrum, the question is, what happens now? Will they deliver a reasonably open network with this incredible new spectrum?
At Public Knowledge, naturally, they’re dubious. Susan Crawford, a visiting law prof at the U. of Mich., says there are basically two models of online access: the cellphone model (walled garden, gatekeeper) and the Internet model (neutral network, dominated by powerful players). Verizon being who it is:
Even though the incumbents (Verizon and AT&T) could have accepted this limitation, won the auction, and then priced wholesale access at a high level (thus discouraging anyone from using it), avoiding the precedent of wholesale access – and retaining the cellphone model of access – was their central goal. And they achieved that.
Hmmm, seems a little conspiratorial to me. Eric Schmidt is optimistic:
“The senior leadership of Verizon actually visited Google to talk to us about this and make sure they got it right,” Chief Executive Eric Schmidt said in a recent interview with Portfolio Magazine. “I think it’s great. I wish everybody else would open up their networks.”
The open network that Verizon announced in November comes with specs and a verification scheme, which lead some to say that the company will continue to assert control over what devices will be allowed. Even if it doesn’t control things as tightly as feared, its ability to subsidize partner devices will effectively mean there’s little change, Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Program at the New America Foundation said.
Personally, I want to believe that this auction will result in widespread, inexpensive wireless access everywhere. So I will until we see otherwise