Google's open-wireless bid: FCC decision Tuesday

The search company is pushing to allow us to do whatever we want on the wireless Internet. Will Google's first big lobbying effort pay off?

By Farhad Manjoo

Published July 30, 2007 6:38PM (EDT)

For several weeks now, I've been pushing Google's $4.6 billion plan for an open wireless Internet. Now we're nearly at decision time. The FCC will vote tomorrow on whether Google's plan or that of large telecom firms will apply to the upcoming auction of wireless radio space known as the 700 MHz band. As the Washington Post notes, the vote will mark the first big test of Google's lobbying savvy.

To recap, the fight concerns radio space that is being vacated by TV broadcasters (they've switched from analog to compressed digital signals). Next year, the FCC will hold an auction to sell the space, and industry observers believe the spectrum will be quite lucrative -- allowing companies to provide faster, better wireless Internet services across the country. But because wireless companies have not welcomed openness on their cell networks -- they decide what devices you can use and what programs you can run on them -- Google and several large Internet firms have been lobbying the FCC to rule that any company that ends up with 700 MHz space must manage it in an "open" manner.

Specifically, Google calls for the FCC to apply the following rules: 1) Firms that win 700 MHz space must let customers download and use any software on the network; 2) they must let customers use any device on the network; 3) they've got to lease wireless space to third-party wireless providers at commercial rates; 4) and they've got to allow their wireless networks to interconnect with other Internet service providers.

Verizon and other telecom firms argue that Google's plan will lower the revenues the government -- i.e., American taxpayers -- raise at auction. To deflect this case, Google promised Kevin Martin, the FCC chairman, that it would bid $4.6 billion for spectrum only if he enacts all its proposed rules.

In a draft proposal that he circulated a few weeks ago, Martin stunned the telecom-friendly Washington policy establishment by siding with Google on points 1 and 2 from above. But despite Google's billion-dollar offer, Martin seems opposed to Google's call for instituting points 3 and 4.

The Post gives a clue as to why. Google's lobbying budget pales in comparison to that of the telecom firms, and "some FCC staff members said the company's tech gurus came across as arrogant in meetings with commissioners." One anonymous staff member says of Google, "they're used to getting what they want rather than having to make a case for what they want."

Tomorrow, we'll finally find out if Google managed to get what it wants (and what the rest of us want, too).

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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