As I’ve written before, Google has become increasingly involved in U.S. spectrum policy issues this year. One of our top public policy objectives is to expand the Internet's reach to more Americans. In part, that means creating new competition to challenge the existing broadband access duopoly (between cable and phone companies), by paving the way for consumers to gain meaningful alternatives via advanced wireless services.
Unfortunately, the wireless airwaves required to develop such a service traditionally have been allocated in a fragmented and inefficient manner. The federal government’s upcoming auction of spectrum in the 700 MHz bands (as part of the digital television transition) offers a tremendous, and probably unique, opportunity to promote competition and web-based innovation.
Earlier this year, Google and other members of the “Coalition for 4G in America” urged the Federal Communications Commission to adopt flexible rules that encourage competitive entry by new and innovative broadband companies. At the time, we stated that our advocacy in the 700 MHz proceeding did not necessarily signal our intention to participate in the auction itself, although no final decision had yet been made.
In comments we filed in late May, we stressed that new entrants face considerable hurdles when competing head-to-head with incumbent wireless carriers. We also noted that a proposal by Frontline Wireless to impose a wholesale/open access mandate on a certain spectrum block would ensure that the owner of that block at least would operate its wireless network in an open manner.
Over the last several weeks, we’ve been taking a closer look at whether and how Google might participate meaningfully in the auction. As part of that look, we've consulted with spectrum auction experts and conducted various game theory scenarios. Our analysis has confirmed that, under the originally proposed rules, the existing national wireless carriers are likely to prevail in the bidding process against a potential new entrant like Google. While we remain interested in the possibility of participating in the auction, it’s clear that the incumbent carriers have built-in advantages that will prove difficult to overcome (particularly the economic and operational barriers to entry for a company like ours, and the relatively greater value and usefulness that spectrum brings to existing carriers).
What would happen if one or some of the existing national wireless carriers win this valuable spectrum at auction? They would probably use it to protect their existing business models and thwart the entry of new competitors -- both understandable actions from a rational business perspective. Beyond the loss of a valuable public resource, however, that outcome would not bring us any closer to fostering much-needed competition in the broadband market, or providing innovative new web applications and service offerings.
Too much is at stake for the federal government to let that happen. Late yesterday, we filed a letter urging the FCC to take concrete steps to make sure that regardless of who wins the spectrum at auction, consumers’ interests are best served. We believe that the winning bidders should be required to adhere to enforceable rules that require the adoption of four types of "open" platforms:
- Open applications: consumers should be able to download and utilize any software applications, content, or services they desire;
- Open devices: consumers should be able to utilize a handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they prefer;
- Open services: 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
- Open networks: third parties (like internet service providers) should be able to interconnect at a technically feasible point in a 700 MHz licensee's wireless network.
We believe that adopting these four license conditions collectively will encourage prospective broadband companies to participate in the auction, and be able to bid successfully for the available spectrum. Not only are new entrants more likely to embrace an ethos of openness, but additional forms of competition will emerge from web-based entities, such as software applications providers, content providers, handset makers, and ISPs. And consumers ultimately will come out ahead in that rich and vibrant broadband environment.
In the meantime, there is now potentially positive news coming out of the FCC. Chairman Kevin Martin apparently is about to circulate proposed auction rules to his fellow commissioners, and we're hearing through the proverbial grapevine that his proposal includes several of the open platform conditions we have recommended. If these reports are accurate, we are most encouraged by this favorable development. Obviously we'll need to see the fine print, but such a proposal would represent a step forward for new, innovative entrants to the broadband market.