The FCC yesterday approved the rules
for the upcoming 700 MHz spectrum license auction, scheduled for early next year. This is an important auction because of the quantity and quality of spectrum it covers, making it particularly suitable for wireless broadband networks. A coalition headed by Google has been pushing the FCC to adopt four "open access" principles for the spectrum, which would require license winners to open their networks to any compatible device, allow users to access any service they wish, and to sell wholesale access to their network to third parties. Google even said it would bid at least $4.6 billion
in the auction if the FCC adopted the four principles. Unsurprisingly, the FCC didn't, instead going with rules that were largely along the lines of what Chairman Kevin Martin had earlier proposed
: licenses for 22 of the 60 MHz on offer will require winners to allow any compatible device on their network and not block access to any services, but will not have the wholesale requirement that Google and its partners were looking for.
Without question, there's some gamesmanship going on here. If Google really wants to own spectrum licenses and have a network that follows its open access principles, there's nothing preventing it from bidding in the auction, winning licenses, and either running its network that way, or leasing the licenses to somebody who will. What's more likely, though, is that Google simply wants the ability to buy wholesale network access, rather than own licenses or build its own network. Again, there's nothing preventing it from entering into such a deal with any license holder, but requiring all the license holders to wholesale access would create a more competitive market and drive down prices. But perhaps the bigger game here is the political one by the FCC. These open access rules, really, are pretty toothless, and perhaps that's best illustrated by the fact that both AT&T
support them. The device requirement could easily be rendered meaningless by the winning bidder's choice of technology for their network. Using a proprietary or unpopular technology would likely mean that the only outlet to purchase compatible devices would be from the network provider. The open access to services requirement is one the operators would likely follow anyway, since blocking access to certain sites and services wouldn't make their wireless broadband services too popular with consumers.
While perhaps these rules represent a small first step for the FCC towards fostering a more competitive broadband, they seem much more like a missed opportunity
to affect some real change. It seems like more than anything, this is a bit of smoke and mirrors that makes it look, to the casual observer, like the FCC's done something significant, when it's actually done very little -- and that would fit with the persistent whispering about Martin's political ambitions