Free Broadband Isn’t Really Free
The US broadband situation is so dire that you may not even be able to give away access. Worse, there might be good reason for that. You may not have heard of M2Z Networks, Inc., but 50,000 others have and are pressuring the FCC to approve the company’s offer of free nationwide broadband access.
What’s wrong with free broadband? Well, nothing, essentially, except that this free broadband, like the free lunch, doesn’t really exist. M2Z has proposed an ad-supported, "family friendly" network based upon the network television model, which sort of runs contrary to Net Neutrality principles, supported by at least a million and a half people, and opposed by incumbent broadband providers.
It runs the same risks of absurdity network TV has faced for half a century:
Who decides what’s decent?
Will advertisers decide what we see?
Will the Parents Television Council waste FCC time sparking debates over whether the term "hamsterbating" is appropriate before 9 PM?
What if Janet Jackson accidentally shows a nipple? Will it cause a Congressional hearing?
The idea behind Net Neutrality was that a democratic system stayed democratic and that no central power controlled the content.
At the same time, if the incumbents are against it, you automatically think it might be a good idea. But you’d expect them to be against free Internet, though wouldn’t you?
The broadband M2Z wants to offer the country is slow, too. About half the speed of AT&T’s apocryphal $10 DSL service – about 384K down and 128K up. Not really bad for free…except that other countries are kicking our butt in available speeds, so much that the $10 DSL might be offered for free in South Korea and nobody would care.
M2Z, which stands for "move the cost of data transport to zero," is headed up by former Clinton-era FCC
Commissioner Wireless Bureau Chief John Muleta, who moved from D.C. to Silicon Valley. The company claims to have 50,000 supporters signed on to their plan, which aims to give 95 percent of the country free broadband access within the 10 years it takes to build out the network.
(Ten years is apparently the standard build-out period, as that was the amount of time given the telecommunications industry by Congress back in 1996 to build a broadband network that never arrived. And then there’s the matter of the missing $200 billion of tax-payer money that was supposed to be used to build it.)
Muleta’s company made its proposal to the FCC nearly a year and a half ago, and has yet to hear a response. He proposed that the FCC make available to M2Z a portion of unused spectrum from 2155 MHz to 2175 MHz, ideal for data but not for voice, in return for 5 percent of annual sales.
If that sounds like a bit of a bribe, well, it kind of is, and it also asks for special treatment by the FCC. Though the FCC has traditionally not had a problem with either concept in the right situation, decade-old rules (you know, the ones that required incumbents to build out the network instead of racing for long distance) require that spectrum be auctioned to the highest bidder.
Even if this particular slice of spectrum isn’t up for sale in either of the upcoming major auctions. But giving M2Z special treatment would almost certainly anger the incumbents, which the FCC is not too keen on doing.
Rightfully, though, M2Z has called for a ruling on the matter, accusing the FCC of dragging its feet. It took half the time to approve the largest merger in American history, the AT&T/BellSouth merger. Yet, a possibility for free broadband in America has sat on the shelf. M2Z has threatened to take the FCC to court if the council hasn’t ruled on the proposal by September 1st.
Which may speed up a denial chairman Kevin Martin has already promised. But it does put the FCC between an incumbent and a hard spot: How can we upset the telcos by giving special treatment to someone that wants to give America free broadband while telling America we turned down an opportunity for free broadband?
Tough one. But maybe you could say that a free, slow, and censored version of the Internet just wasn’t a good enough proposition. Or maybe you guys should ask for 10 percent, instead.