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’Open access’ provision on spectrum swath supported by majority of FCC commissioners

    WASHINGTON — A majority of the Federal Communications Commission told a House subcommittee that they support an ‘‘open access’’ requirement on one swath of airwaves that will be auctioned early next year.
    The provision, put forth by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, would allow cell phone customers to use any device they would like on a new network encompassing about one-third of the 60 megahertz of spectrum to be auctioned.
    ‘‘Consumers would be able to use the wireless device of their choice and download whatever software they want,’’ Martin told the panel.
    The provision was met with support from Democrats on the House Subcommittee on the Telecommunications and the Internet and resistance from most of the Republicans on the panel.
    A broader open access provision, however, supported by Google, received limited support from the two Democrats on the commission and was opposed by Martin.
    Tuesday’s hearing was Martin’s first opportunity to speak publicly about the rules that will govern the so-called ‘‘700 megahertz’’ auction. The highly coveted spectrum is being made available thanks to the digital television transition.
    The chairman began circulating the rules about two weeks ago.
    The two Democrats on the commission supported Martin’s limited open-access provision while Martin’s fellow Republicans said they were undecided.
    ‘‘I know you want me to have an answer but at this point I really don’t,’’ said Deborah Taylor Tate, in response to a question from Chairman Ed Markey, D-Mass., about the provision.
    Commissioner Robert McDowell said that he is ‘‘considering all the arguments.’’
    Republicans on the panel generally sided with the wireless industry’s position that special rules on the spectrum are not needed.
    ‘‘I see it as a gamble,’’ Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said of adding the conditions. ‘‘Successful auctions work best without encumbrances.’’
    The concern is that special rules placed on the spectrum might discourage companies from bidding, thus lowering the proceeds that would go the U.S. Treasury.
    The auction has yet to be scheduled but is required by law to take place by Jan. 28, 2008. The commission could vote on the rules as early as next week.
    If the full commission votes to include the special provisions on the 22 megahertz spectrum slice subject to the open-access provision, the licenses would have to attract a minimum $4.6 billion bid. If the minimum bid is not met, the conditions would be stripped and the spectrum would be re-auctioned.
    The minimum bid for the entire auction is $10 billion, Martin said. The auction is expected to raise as much as $15 billion for the U.S. Treasury with some estimates as high as $20 billion.
    Consumer advocates and Google have argued for a more aggressive open access provision on the spectrum, one that would require licensees to lease their networks to wireless services providers, including those who may offer high-speed Internet service.
    Google CEO Eric Schmidt wrote a letter to Martin last week stating the company ‘‘intends’’ to commit a minimum of $4.6 billion to the auction if the wholesale provision, plus an open network requirement, are met.
    Martin made it clear he does not support the broader open access provision, saying it may discourage investment in the network.
    The auction rules will also enable the creation of a nationwide public safety network, though what that would look like has yet to be spelled out.

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