Google wins partial victory in FCC ruling

After fits and starts, the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday handed a partial victory to Google in the latter's bid to ensure open access to 700 MHz band that is to be auctioned to cell phone service providers.

The 700-megahertz wireless band has been seen by some analysts as the last chance for new players in the cell phone market. The band is being made available because the television broadcasters who currently occupy the range are moving to digital television transmission in February 2009.

Google had announced previously that it was willing to bid at least $4.6 billion in the upcoming 700 MHz auction, but only if certain conditions requiring open access were placed on the spectrum.

Specifically, Google called for four changes in requirements for the band:
  • Consumers should be able to download and utilize any software applications, content or services they desire;
  • Consumers should be able to utilize a handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they prefer;
  • Third parties (resellers) should be able to acquire wireless services from a 700 MHz licensee on a wholesale basis, based on reasonably nondiscriminatory commercial terms; and
  • Third parties (like internet service providers) should be able to interconnect at any technically feasible point in a 700 MHz licensee's wireless network.

Critics, including CTIA, the organization that represents the international wireless telecommunications industry, have charged that Google is actually more interested in securing open-access requirements on the spectrum than in actually winning the license itself.

'If Google is willing to commit almost $5 billion for spectrum that it wants encumbered with various requirements, then let it win that spectrum in a competitive auction and choose that business model,' reads a letter the CTIA sent to the FCC. 'Google and its allies, with their collective market capitalization approaching half a trillion dollars, don't need a government handout at taxpayers' expense. The competitive wireless industry welcomes all new entrants, but no company should be able to buy a custom-fit government regulation that suits their particular business plan. Consumers should decide if they're right, not the federal government.'

Under the rules released by the FCC on Tuesday, however, Google was largely victorious. Under the ruling, consumers will be able to use whatever phone and software they want on networks using a portion of the spectrum to be auctioned.

At the same time, the FCC did not approve one of Google's requirements: a provision that would have required the winner of the auction to sell access to its network on a wholesale basis to other companies.

The FCC ruling also reserves a portion of the band for to be used by public safety agencies for broadband communications. An additional portion of the spectrum will be reserved for 'public safety/private partnership.' Under the ruling, the commercial licensee who wins the auction will build out a nationwide, interoperable broadband network for the use of public safety. In an emergency, the public safety agencies will have priority access to that portion of the band.

The FCC's ruling is a sign of 'real progress,' according to Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel. 'By the same token, it would have a more complete victory for consumers had the FCC adopted all four of the license conditions that we advocated, in order to pave the way for the real 'third pipe' broadband competition that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has been touting.'

As for whether Google will actually submit a bid for the spectrum, according to Whitt, 'we will need time to carefully study the actual text of the FCC's rules, due out in a few weeks, before we can make any definitive decisions about our possible participation in the auction.'

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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