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Chairman Martin wants free broadband for everyone

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin now says high-speed Internet access is so important to the welfare of U.S. consumers that the country can’t afford not to offer it free of charge to everyone.

“There’s a social obligation in making sure everybody can participate in the next generation of broadband services, because, increasingly, that’s what people want,” Martin told “USA Today” last week.

With mobile phone providers against him, Martin said he hopes to use spectrum due to be auctioned next year to push the idea. “More and more people expect and demand to have access to the Internet and new wireless technologies,” Martin told the newspaper. “It is important that [the FCC] try to find new ways to address those needs.”

Martin said broadband is quickly replacing copper phone lines as the main means of communication for millions of Americans. Consumers living in rural areas are one of his biggest concerns, where dial-up and satellite-based Internet still rule. Currently, only 38 percent of rural households are broadband customers.

By attaching a “free broadband” condition to the sale of the spectrum, known as AWS-3 (advanced wireless services-3), Martin hopes to drive up broadband adoption in rural areas in particular. Only 25 percent of network capacity would have to be reserved for free broadband. The rest could be used to provide premium broadband services.

T-Mobile, who paid $4 billion two years ago to buy AWS-1 spectrum, which abuts the AWS-3 spectrum, opposes Martin’s plan. While the FCC’s goal of providing broadband alternatives for rural customers is “noble,” the approach would cause service disruptions for T-Mobile’s data customers, said Cole Brodman, T-Mobile’s CTO.

Martin said he’d like to find a way to use the universal service fund to ease costs for lower-income people. The fund, currently about $6 billion a year, is used to help keep basic phone service at a low cost. Rural phone companies, which use that money to help offset their costs, would likely resist such a plan.