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Wireless Spectrum

The LA Timeshas an editorial on the FCC’s forthcoming spectrum auction [hat tip: Content Agenda]:

The FCC’s goal for the auction should be to encourage the development of more broadband Internet services. So much of the economy’s potential depends on high-speed Internet access, yet the U.S. lags many Asian and European countries in the percentage of broadband users.

Whether the available channels can support a competitor to existing DSL and cable-modem services is an open question, but the FCC can improve the odds by making the frequencies available in blocks large enough to create a viable substitute.

The commission should heed recommendations from high-tech and satellite TV firms, which say a 10% increase in the size of the current plan’s blocks would allow for more types of wireless broadband technology.

The commission should also require that at least some of the new frequencies be open to any compatible device or application that doesn’t interfere with other users of the airwaves. That way, consumer electronic companies could build and sell devices without having to strike deals with network operators. {Emphasis mine}

This is another way of saying, “If we’re going to have more wireless broadband, it shouldn’t look like the cellular industry.”

Skype has a petition into the FCC over just such an issue on the cellular networks. Skype contends that many of the carrier’s terms of service prohibit users from running third-party applications like Skype. So, the eBay-owned firm is asking for the FCC to apply “Carterphone principles” to the wireless industry.

Carterphone refers to a 1968 ruling that opened up AT&T’s telephone network to a host of devices provided they did not harm the network.

I spoke with Skype’s government and regulatory affairs director Christopher Libertelli (also a former advisor to Michael Powell) for a forthcoming story on just this issue. I asked him what the world would look like if Carterphone were applied to the wireless industry. The short answer: “lots more unlocked devices.”

Obviously, the wireless industry feels differently. Some think Skype has an uphill battle, not least of all because at the time of Carterphone, AT&T was a monopoly, while the wireless industry today is clearly not. There are multiple networks and hundreds of devices that connect to it.

Tim Wu, of Columbia University, has a paper outlining the lay of the land and why it matters here.