Open Access Gains Another Convert, AT&T Denies Poisition Change

A brief update on my recent post that AT&T recently conceded it might consider bidding on an open access license. Unsurprisingly, Frontline Wireless — the party pushing for the “E Block” public safety/open access network — filed a copy with the Commission stating that this proves that an E Block auction would attract bidders and that the business model is workable. In response, according to today’s (6/29) Communications Daily an AT&T spokesperson said: “Our position has not changed. As we’ve stated on the record at the FCC, mandated ‘open access’ conditions on licenses in the 700 MHz band should be rejected. We need to see the specific rules the FCC adopts for auction before determining our level of participation.”

The carefull reader will note that these statements are not inconsistent. Of course AT&T would prefer not to have open access, and — at the drop of a hat — will explain why open access is an unworkable awful idea and you should ignore all the evidence from Europe or from the U.S. until we abolished open access in 2005. But there is a huge difference between “we hate open access and think it’s a bad idea” and “we absolutely refuse to bid on a license with an open access condition and nobody else with any money would bid either.” Given that the most potent argument against open access from a political perspective is “don’t mess with the revenue” (as evidenced by the recent Op Ed in the Washington Post by two CTIA lobbyists wearing their “think tank” hats), proof that folks other than Frontline will even show up to bid (and folks with deep pockets at that) on an open access license is rather significant.

Meanwhile, open access for the 700 MHz auction continues to attract new supporters from different sectors of the industry. Northop Grumman, rather a heavy-weight in the equipment manufacture and public saftey/defense contracting world, filed this document supporting open access and explaining that yes, you really can construct a secure public safety network that shares spectrum with an open access commercial network. So much for “it will never work, it’s too hard, lets stick to what we’ve always done.”

In addition, the Frontline cover letter on the submission that introduced the “Well Connected” post with the AT&T interview stated that Citibank had made a presentation to the Commission “last week” explaining that open access is a workable business model. Annoyingly, I can find no record of this presentation in the record for Docket 06-150, but I may just be missing it (it is a pretty big docket). (UPDATE: My thanks to Susan Crawford for pointing me to the appropriate ex parte filing.)

But assuming that Frontline accurately describes a presentation that took place, we now have:

1) A statement by a major financial investor that open access is an attractive and workable model from a business perspective;

2) A statement by a major equipment manufacturer and network operator that commercial open access — even in the more complicated universe of a dual use public safety network — is technologically feasible;

3) A statement by a major incumbent that it would at least “look at” bidding on an open access license if the Commission adopts such a rule;

4) Statements by wireless equipment and wireless application providers that there is a desperate need for open access in the wireless world and in the provision of broadband services generally;

5) Over 250,000 individuals saying the status quo sucks and we want open networks and new providers.

On the other side, we have the entire incumbent industry and its usual cheer leading section chanting that everything is vibrantly competitive, we live in the best of all possible worlds, everything works perfectly and competitively, and even thinking “open access” too loudly will scare away bidders and reduce revenue to a fraction of the expected $10-15 billion. And besides, open access can’t possibly work either on the business side or the technical side.

And all the while, the clock ticks away, as everyone scrambles to get this done before the end of the summer.

Stay tuned . . . .

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