700 MHz Auction Update — FCC Republicans Interested In Public Interest Proposals While Senate Democrats Take a Pass.

Welcome once again to the topsy-turvy land of spectrum politics. Although Republican FCC Chair Kevin Martin shattered expectations by seeking comment on the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (PISC) proposals for the 700 MHz auction, the Senate Democrats have decided to avoid having anyone from the public interest discuss the auction at next Thursday’s (June 14) hearing. In other words, despite my hope to the contrary, the Democratic Senate Commerce Committee is still playing spectrum politics under the old rules (treating this as an industry food fight and a chance to raise revenue), rather than using this as a chance to promote a robust public debate on how to ensure that wireless auctions promote competition and serve the public interest.

As a result, when the Senate Commerce Committee gathers to ask how the 700 MHz wireless auction can introduce new competitors for broadband and facilitate the open networks critical for civic engagement and innovation, they will hear from Mr. Dick Lynch of Verizon Wireless, Mr. Michael Small of Centennial Communications Corporation, and Dr. Amol R. Sarva of the Wireless Founders Coalition For Innovation. While Verizon has supported anonymous bidding, and the Wireless Founders Coalition supports open access, that hardly takes the place of having actual public interest representatives up there to press for real spectrum reform regardless of the impact on business models or bottom lines. As I say all too often (everyone repeat together) citizen movements must be citizen driven, and that includes giving us folks pushing the public interest an opportunity to speak rather than relegating us to the side-lines because corporate interests overlap with ours.

More below . . . .

First, I need to stress that not all Democratic Senators have tuned out the public or the issues we have raised. Senator Kerry (whom some of you may remember introduced an excellent “white spaces” bill back in January) just sent a letter to Kevin Martin underscoring the same issues that PISC has focused on: the lack of broadband competition and the tight control that wireless operators exercise over their networks — with the accompanying decline in innovation in the wireless space when compared with more open wireless regimes abroad. But even the Kerry letter falls short of the specific endorsements of open access, network neutrality, and anonymous bidding pushed by PISC and endorsed by the Edwards Campaign.

Needless to say, I find it somewhat disappointing to have the Democratic-controlled Senate Commerce Committee consider the public interest community unworthy of a seat at the table. Kevin Martin has not only let the debate go forward by putting our issues for public comment (opening the door to more than 250,000 individual comments supporting our proposals for open access and net neutrality, he has personally met several times with members of the PISC. Indeed, every Commissioner, whether Republican or Democrat, has taken the time to meet with our coalition and explore the issues with us in detail. How is it possible for the Republican FCC to show more interest (and, if I may say so, respect) for the public interest community than the Democratic Congress? (The cynical answer is that Martin has no need to solicit campaign contributions, but I prefer to believe that this represents an unfortunate lag between the change in public participation in spectrum policy and awareness by members of Congress of the change.)

At the least, I hope that folks who care will call or fax or email their Senators (and Representatives) before the Thursday hearing and put them on notice that the politics of spectrum have changed. They need to hear loud and clear that the Commerce Committee (whichever party runs it) needs to stop treating this as an industry food fight and start having some of the people pushing for public interest policies to testify. At the least, it would be nice to see a sizable number of Senators show up and ask some hard questions about why other countries have gotten so far ahead of us on wireless services and why in our “fiercely competitive” wireless markets we have crippled devices and tightly controlled networks.

The good folks at Free Press have started urging their members in relevant states to call members of the Senate Commerce Committee to urge them to show up at the hearing and ask tough questions. Matt Stoller at MYDD.com has this piece on the Senate Hearing and how to press the issue in Congress and on the Presidential campaign trail.

Apparently, the Democrats in Congress can’t hear us yet. We will need to speak a little louder.

Stay tuned . . . .

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