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The games have truly started at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), where the agency is gearing up for what may be the most significant auction of publicly owned spectrum.
How is this game scored? It appears as if one wins by pushing proposals that appear to be favoring competition, when in fact, they don't. Make no mistake. It's evident from today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required) and USA Today that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is a very good player. The spin on both of those stories was impeccable. Martin and his staff made it appear as if the Commission was about to embark on a new, glorious age for consumers. As the headline in USA Today put it, "New rules could rock wireless world."
Martin and his staff are pushing the notion that for the next spectrum auction, and only for that slice of the airwaves to be auctioned next year, consumers will have the opportunity to use any mobile device or application.
For the record, that's not a bad thing. As the hubbub over the iPhone has demonstrated, consumers don't have a whole lot of choice in which phones they can use on which network, and which services they can access. Apple was forced to deal with either AT&T or Verizon. And then it had to go with AT&T, which has the inferior network. Even then, there are severe restrictions on what consumers can do with an iPhone, just as there are severe restrictions on what consumers can do with any cell phone.
The new glorious age of cellphone liberation wouldn't apply to the millions of phones operating now on existing networks. It's not clear how a service offered by Verizon in the newly auctioned spectrum would work if it could also connect to existing spectrum.
What the news reports about a draft FCC order circulating at the agency indicate, however, is that the Commission is on the verge of passing up the chance to create a semblance of real competition in the wireless area. That's because the definition of "open access" that Martin is using is far different from what everyone else is using.
The public-interest community and the high-tech companies see "open access" as requiring the winners of the spectrum auction to offer a slice of the space on a wholesale basis with no rules on what types of services or equipment could be offered. That's a far cry even from loosened rules on a new slice of spectrum owned by existing companies.
In theory, a true "open access" regime could go some way to creating some competition in the wireless world in which there are four or five major companies which each have similar ways of doing business. A true open access regime could have given Apple the chance to deploy the iPhone on another network. A true open access regime could allow Google, or satellite companies, or any sort smaller entrepreneur with a great idea the chance to offer something newer and different from what the existing carriers provide.
If Martin's plan holds up, they may never get the chance. The good news is that the game isn't over, and it's possible that other commissioners will see the benefits of true competition. We can only hope.