Google asks FCC to open airwaves

It seeks broadband access that's universal

July 21, 2007|By Jim Puzzanghera | Jim Puzzanghera,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- If Google Inc. has its way, your cell phone will work on any wireless network and companies will sell high-speed Internet access for cut-rate prices.

Google thinks that would be a wonderful world - for consumers as well as its own bottom line - and is proposing to pony up $4.6 billion in a long-shot bid to create it.

The king of Web search offered yesterday to dig into its mountain of cash to transform a chunk of prime public airwaves into a high-speed data freeway. If successful, it could drive down the price of Internet access by creating more competitors to phone and cable companies.

Google promised to bid in a future federal auction of spectrum that is ideal for fast wireless Internet service - but only if regulators agree to the company's proposals to require open access to those airwaves. That means any device, service, software application or network could operate on it with no restrictions.

"That would be revolutionary," said Bob Williams director of HearUsNow.org, a Web site run by Consumers Union that promotes telecommunications competition. "If you want high-speed Internet service, you basically have a choice of two, and in a lot of places you don't have any choice ... and that situation has to change."

Google told the Federal Communications Commission it would put up the minimum bid of $4.6 billion. The company wanted to prove its seriousness and counter big wireless companies such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., which say the conditions would make the spectrum virtually worthless.

The offer is unlikely to sway the FCC. The agency thinks the airwaves being given up by TV broadcasters in 2009 as they switch to digital signals could fetch much more for the federal coffers.

But Google is showing its intention to influence one of the biggest spectrum auctions in the nation's history.

Google's offer comes at a time when investors are raising questions about how much money the company is spending to put its ambitious plans in place. Its stock fell more than 5 percent, to $520.12, yesterday after big investments on hires and other expansion costs caused its second-quarter earnings to miss Wall Street's expectations.

Despite its promise to bid, Google actually might not want to license the airwaves itself. But it does want to force them open to increased competition with cable and phone companies - and make it cheaper for people to get on the Web and use Google's growing array of services.

Wireless companies now control all access to the spectrum they license from the government, which is why, for example, Apple Inc.'s iPhone can't be used on any network other than AT&T's.

Under Google's plan

Under Google's plan people could connect any device to any network and run any software they want on their phones, such as free Internet-based calling systems. But most important for boosting competition, companies would have the right to use the airwaves at a wholesale price to offer their own Internet access.

"In short, when Americans can use the software and handsets of their choice, over open and competitive networks, they win," Google chief executive Eric E. Schmidt wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin yesterday.

The effort is backed by public-interest groups and a coalition of major technology companies, including Intel Corp., eBay Inc., Yahoo Inc., DirecTV Group Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. But it faces huge obstacles in Washington, where the politically powerful phone companies have been fighting it.

Last week, Martin supported Google's plan to allow people to use any device or software on a network but not the more controversial open-access requirement that many view as the key to creating a viable nationwide competitor to phone and cable companies in broadband access.

FCC weighing rules

The FCC is still drawing up the rules for the airwave auction, and Google's plan is a long shot.

AT&T slammed Google's bid offer yesterday, saying it was just an attempt to pressure the FCC to "stack the deck in its favor."

Under the traditional auction rules, Google says it and other companies can't outbid the big phone companies because of their built-in advantage of existing networks.

Jim Puzzanghera writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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