Sunday, December 14, 2008

AWS-3 Vote Postponed Indefinitely

Late Friday, Chairman Martin canceled the October 18th FCC Open Meeting. This is a fairly exceptional development. The Commission was set to vote on the increasingly controversial rules for auctioning off the AWS-3 spectrum -- a 25MHz block of airwaves in the 2GHz range. Martin had been pushing for two fairly unique requirements on the ultimate winner: 1) That the winner must provide no-cost internet access on a portion of the spectrum and 2) That they must filter "objectionable material" (possibly with an opt-out for adults). In July, I co-authored comments explaining why this second condition raised troubling free speech concerns.

Martin has come under increasing pressure from all sides. The ACLU criticized the "family friendly" aspects of the plan, in chorus with comments from public interest groups. Then, the Bush Administration sent a letter to the FCC last Wednesday, stating that "the draft AWS-3 order would constrain a provider's usage of this spectrum, favoring a particular business model and potentially precluding the spectrum from allocation to the most valuable use" (coverage here). Nevertheless, Martin appeared determined to see the plan through, and issued the formal agenda the next day.

But on Friday, Congressmen Rockefeller and Waxman weighed in with a letter. These are the two guys who will head up the committees that oversee the FCC, in the Senate and House respectively. Apparently this pushed Martin over the edge, and he canceled the meeting altogether. FCC Spokesman Robert Kenny said:

"We received the letter from Senator Rockefeller and Congressman Waxman today and spoke with other offices. In light of the letter, it does not appear that there is consensus to move forward and the agenda meeting has been canceled."

Wow. This means that the question of what to do with the AWS-3 spectrum will almost certainly fall to the next FCC. They could start the process over from scratch, with new proposals for what to do with the spectrum and another series of notice-and-comment periods. Hopefully that Commission will take an approach that does not present such significant First Amendment problems. The failure of this ill-designed proposal is a bittersweet victory -- at least we didn't get bad rules out of the process. However, we have also potentially delayed the point at which this spectrum can be used to overcome our national broadband woes.

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