Thursday, August 21, 2008

Martin's Spectrum Policy

Leslie Cauley of USA Today has a well-organized report on FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's dream of cheaper, ubiquitous broadband. While much of the clarity is in Cauley's writing (we in Lafayette have reason to recall how well she understands telecom issues), Martin is actually advocating something very close to what you would hope that someone with his responsibilities would try to accomplish. Coming on the heels of his critical vote upholding fundamental net neutrality principles re Comcast, Martin is beginning to look pretty good. (Of course the devil is in the details but getting the principle right is more than half the battle.)

Here's my synopsis of the article:

The Principle:

High-speed Internet access is so important to the welfare of U.S. consumers that America can't afford not to offer it — free of charge — to anybody who wants it, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin says.

"There's a social obligation in making sure everybody can participate in the next generation of broadband services because, increasingly, that's what people want," he says....

The Windup:

The way Martin sees it, broadband is quickly becoming what copper phone lines were for decades: the main means of communication for millions of Americans....

Consumers living in rural areas are one of Martin's biggest concerns. In these areas, he says, dial-up and satellite-based Internet still rule. Owing to technical limitations, they don't offer enough speed to handle advanced, interactive services....

No matter where, Martin says, he worries about availability and cost of high-speed services. Broadband runs about $40 a month, on average, though you'll pay a lot more for faster speeds...

Cost is a big factor, according to the report. Among households with incomes of $100,000 or more, 85% subscribe. The figure drops to 25% for households with incomes of less than $20,000.

The Pitch:

Martin wants to use a block of wireless spectrum to help bridge the gap. By attaching a "free broadband" condition to the sale of the spectrum, known as AWS-3 (for advanced wireless services-3), Martin thinks he can help drive broadband adoption in rural areas in particular. Only 25% of network capacity would have to be reserved for free broadband. The rest could be used to provide premium broadband services...

As for the high cost of broadband generally, Martin says he'd like to find a way to use a very old federal subsidy — the universal service fund — to ease costs for lower-income people.

Oh yeah, The Antis:

Some cellphone providers are howling...

And

Rural phone companies, which use that money [the universal service fund] to help offset their costs, would likely resist such a plan.

Now folks haven't been treating this proposal all that seriously—it was floated a while back by a company that wanted access to a nation-wide chunk of spectrum, and it didn't fly back then. Martin's advocacy has reawakened the whole idea. Most importantly, however, having the man in charge of the nation's spectrum treating new spectrum as a resource for pursuing needed public policy is hugely heartening after almost a generation of principle-free official policy.

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