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‘Free’ Broadband Sparks Constitutional Debate

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Though M2Z Networks threatened to take to the FCC to court to force a decision on the company’s "family friendly" free nationwide wireless broadband proposal by September 1, a likely "no" vote from the commission has made M2Z decide more public debate is necessary.

M2Z CEO John Muleta, as a former FCC commissioner chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, is no stranger to the regulatory approval game. Nearly a year and a half ago, Muleta and company proposed a revenue-sharing deal with the federal government if M2Z could use a slice of unused TV spectrum to provide an advertising supported broadband network.

The speed wouldn’t be blistering, mind you, just 384K, and content would be filtered for decency just like broadcast television. In return for not auctioning off this slice of spectrum like the rest, M2Z would funnel five percent of ad revenue into the US Treasury.

Of course a proposal like this brings up a whole host of issues, and forms unlikely alliances as opposing forces object for opposing reasons. Muleta accused FCC Chairman Martin of dragging his feet, an accusation which nearly sealed an answer in the negative, despite there being no good answer for Martin in this situation.

If the FCC approves M2Z’s proposal, it has to answer to AT&T and Verizon and even to the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition, made up of Free Press, Media Access Project and Consumers Union, natural opponents of telecom incumbents.

The incumbents don’t want competition offering what they offer, albeit much, much slower, for free. The PISC doesn’t want an ISP setting a precedent by being allowed to filter Web content. 

Sort of defeats the purpose of the whole Net Neutrality debate.

But if the FCC denied the proposal, it risks angering other sets of stakeholders, namely, the poor and the profanity police. Well, it’s most likely the latter the FCC’s worried about.

So, obviously, M2Z is right that it’s a complicated issue. It’s interesting, though, that just last week approval wasn’t coming fast enough, and this week, a couple of days before the deadline, we’re all being too hasty about it.

Interestingly enough, M2Z cited PISC’s filed comments that "granting the license subject to a filtering condition… raises serious First Amendment concerns as well as statutory concerns" as reason to extend the debate.

"We applaud PISC’s thoughtful and considered comments.  They’ve raised important questions to the FCC and M2Z agrees that additional time is needed for a full and informed debate on the merits of M2Z’s pending application,” said Muleta. "Unfortunately, it’s clear that the full Commission has not yet had adequate time for a full review of our extensive docket.   The public interest will not be served by a rushed decision made because of an arbitrary September 1 deadline.”

M2Z disagrees, however, that there are Constitutional concerns with offering a filtered network. The basis for that argument are precedents set by over-the-air television and radio, both of which are regulated by the FCC.

However, if you want to get persnickety about it, that is technically government regulation of speech, which walks a fine First Amendment line as it is, and is peppered with consolidated media selected messaging.

Regardless, the TV and radio is what they’re basing their argument upon.

“Similar to free-over-the-air TV, we would have no idea whether a user of the free service is 9 years old or 40 years old," said Muleta. "We also believe, and that includes our investors who are Silicon Valley leaders, that offering Americans free and family friendly broadband makes good business sense since it provides consumers more choices in the broadband market.” 

He’s probably hit closer to the heart of it there – there are investors and markets at stake. But doin-it-for-the-kids is always a powerful political tagline. Funny how it didn’t sway anybody in power when the .xxx domain was proposed and shot down by both family groups and porn peddlers, one side wanting to pretend porn didn’t exist while the other pretended they’d go out of business if they had to move.

Though the .xxx domain proposal had it’s own issues – classic ones like the difference between smut and art – at least filtering at home would have been simpler, and best of all, not centrally controlled by a distributor with a vested interest in the content you see.

Again, M2Z’s "free" broadband is not free. Nothing is free as long as it is controlled.

‘Free’ Broadband Sparks Constitutional Debate
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  • http://webspeak.bravehost.com S. Hood

    So what’s the problem with Free Broadband? I do not see how it can be unlawful because originally TV and Radio were free and some of it still is.

    Why do I smell greed?