Is FCC’s Martin backtracking on 700MHz open access?

FCC chairman Kevin Martin is aggressively pushing for revisions to the 700MHz open access rule as the result of strong pressure from Verizon Wireless, “RCR Wireless News” reported last week.

Martin, according to the report, recently tried and failed to make changes to the 700MHz open access conditions after a backlash from one or more of his FCC colleagues. The chairman is now using a different policymaking vehicle — a declaratory ruling — to modify the auction’s open access guidelines. The report said Martin is responding to pressure from Verizon Wireless executives who met with him on Sept. 17.

Key industry players, said “RCR Wireless News,” are worried that Martin wants to water down the open access conditions outside of the normal public comment process. Both the FCC and Verizon Wireless have refused public comment on the report.

If the rules are changed, the hopes of consumer activists will be dashed for using the 700MHz spectrum for wide-area Internet networking using devices selected by users, not the carrier.

Verizon recently sued the FCC over those rules, claiming they imposed unfair conditions on one-third of the 700MHz spectrum that’s set for auction in January. The spectrum is being vacated by broadcasters after analog transmissions end the following year.

The spectrum auction is expected to generate $10 billion to $15 billion for the federal government. News reports said Verizon, who is expected to a major bidder in the auction, spooked Martin with prospects of finding the spectrum less valuable with the open access requirements.

However, a reversal of the FCC’s open access policy could drive away other attractive spectrum bidders such as Google, a company that lobbied hard for open access, and Apple, the computer maker that has considered joining the bidding.

In a public filing, Verizon Wireless said its executives told Martin and other agency officials on Sept. 17 that the open access conditions would “force C-block licensees to allow any and all lawful applications to be downloaded to any devices that licensees provide, including devices that are not configured to accommodate any and all lawful applications.” This, the company said, would prevent it from “differentially pricing” features and services on the network.

Critics contend that Verizon wants to preserve an existing model that prevents customers from using devices from other providers or running software that would offer a lower-cost alternative, such as a VoIP telephony application.