FCC Cancels Vote on Free-Wireless Plan

In the face of criticism from a growing roster of opponents, the Federal Communications Commission has canceled a meeting this week at which it would have voted on a controversial proposal for free, family-friendly wireless broadband, MediaPost reports.

The FCC’s decision came shortly after Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) asked the agency to put the brakes on the initiative and instead use the remaining weeks of the current administration to focus on the upcoming transition to digital TV. With the meeting canceled, the proposal appears to be in limbo until at least next year, after the new administration takes office.

The now-suspended plan involved auctioning off portions of the advanced wireless services-3 spectrum. The FCC’s intention was to require that licensees provide some wireless broadband for free and offer a filter to block porn and other content deemed unsuitable for minors.

That blueprint drew opposition from a range of critics, including politicians, digital-rights groups, and telecom T-Mobile, which is afraid that use of the spectrum for wireless broadband will interfere with its transmissions in an adjacent spectrum. The FCC says that testing has shown no interference, but T-Mobile, which paid $4.2 million in 2006 to license that spectrum, is not convinced.

The vote’s cancellation marks a setback for M2Z, a wireless startup backed by Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, which has lobbied for the proposal

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told Martin last week that the administration does not support the plan in its current form. “A government-mandated free nationwide network is not the most effective or efficient way to assist underserved areas. The Administration believes that the AWS-3 spectrum should be auctioned without price or product mandates,” Gutierrez wrote in a letter to Martin.

In addition, digital-rights groups including Free Press and Public Knowledge are concerned that filters to screen out adult content violate the First Amendment. Users over 18 would be able to opt out of the filter, but the groups still object. “The proposal to pre-screen indecent content for the purposes of protecting minors is not part of the Commission’s general public-interest authority, deviates from the Commission’s traditional approach, and will likely be overturned by a reviewing court,” the groups wrote in a letter to the FCC filed last week.

Separately, last month, the FCC moved forward with another contentious plan for wireless broadband. In that instance, the agency voted to allow the unlicensed use of white spaces — the radio airwaves not used by TV stations — for wireless broadband. TV stations and others had opposed that plan, arguing that wireless devices could interfere with television signals.

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