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What's Worse Than Rigged Auctions & Internet Censorship?
How About Both in One Package!

Progress Snapshot
Release 4.12 June 2008

by Adam Thierer and Berin Szoka*

View as PDF

The big spectrum policy debate in town these days continues to be the fight about how to redo the botched D block auction. As we all know, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's previous effort to micro-manage that auction failed miserably.[1] Sadly, the follow-up plan isn't much better, as the Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial today:

You'd think Chairman Martin would have learned from this experience. It's not the role of regulators to pick winners and losers to achieve their preferred social outcomes. Private competition and the price mechanism can most fairly and efficiently find the best use for scarce spectrum. The FCC's clumsy attempt at social engineering resulted in a failed auction that has prevented otherwise desirable spectrum from being put to commercial use.

Alas, Mr. Martin has now proposed another wireless auction for a separate piece of spectrum. And this time he wants to require the winner to offer free Internet access that filters out pornography--conditions that obviously would decrease the value of the license and turn off potential bidders. It just so happens that Mr. Martin's proposed auction seems tailor-made for the business plan put forward by M2Z, another politically connected Silicon Valley start-up looking to enter the wireless broadband telecom market.[2]

The declared goal of the new plan is to provide "free" broadband to the masses while also satisfying public safety spectrum needs (though little is understood about how the propose service will support public safety). Supporting legislation introduced by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), H.R. 5846, the " Wireless Internet Nationwide for Families Act of 2008,"[3] would require the winning bidder to:

offer, at a minimum, always-on wireless broadband services within 2 years from the date of receipt of the license, and complete the construction of such wireless network with a signal covering at least 95 percent of the population of the United States and its territories within 10 years from the initial operation of the network; [and] a data service that is faster than 200 kilobits per second one way for free to consumers and authorized public safety users without subscription, airtime, usage, or other charges.

Good luck getting anyone to bid much on that plan! It's not really clear why anyone would think that a 200 kbps public utility service--even at zero cost--will have all that much appeal to the masses. Today, through server-side data compression, any of us can already squeeze 300 kbps[4] out of our old dial-up lines--a service now free from companies like NetZero and generally costing less than $10/month. Even most existing wireless data plans today provide greater bandwidth. How many people are really going to want to use a "free" wireless network that pumps out far less? After all, you're not going to be able to download many videos or big files or do anything very data-intensive on the proposed network. While a certain segment of basic smart phone users might be satisfied with such sluggish speeds for rudimentary web uses such as email, blog-reading, calendars and basic locational searches, existing equipment would not be able to connect to the proposed network because of the bands used.[5] So, while such PDA users might seize the opportunity to use slow-but-free municipal wi-fi networks, they could not use the proposed network: an entirely new generation of wireless technologies would have to be equipped to support yet another wireless standard.

So why would any company pony up serious money at an auction to win the right to provide such a lackluster service to a minimum of 95% of the nation, including costly-to-serve low density areas, within two years? You don't need to be a Harvard Business School grad to see why that plan doesn’t make much sense for most investors. (Never mind the fact that the auction of this much valuable spectrum with so many regulatory encumbrances will yield far less at auction to the U.S. Treasury.)

Of course, the winning bidder will likely have the right to "up-sell" customers to a higher-speed paid service. But we have no idea how well that plan will work out and, even if it did, it would call into question the logic of rigging this auction in the first place: Is the purpose truly to provide free universal broadband access, or just to hand someone a chunk of somewhat cheaper spectrum to let them up-sell customers to higher-speed, paid plans? If it's the latter, the plan seems a little unfair to the private carriers who are already aggressively competing in the market today, having paid top-dollar for their spectrum and invested heavily in wireless data networks.

Or will the lucky auction winner be expected to rely in part on advertising revenues to pay for the up-front costs of winning the auction, building out the network and providing service--much as M2Z originally planned to do?[6] If so, the provider would doubtless prefer to offer more profitable behaviorally targeted advertising customized for each user. The Federal Trade Commission has wisely chosen not to regulate such advertising, given its complexities and ongoing evolution, and to rely instead on enforcement of existing unfair and deceptive trade laws, while issuing voluntary guidelines for industry. But of course, the FCC would have jurisdiction over the proposed service and would likely face enormous political pressure to include its own regulatory regime for online behavioral advertising while drafting service rules. The controversy over such rules could delay the deployment of the proposed service, while any FCC regulations would inject the FCC into the ongoing debate over how to govern a practice that provides the revenue stream necessary to support a variety of content and services.

But this new spectrum-rigging plan is troubling for an entirely different reason: It demands Internet censorship. The original M2Z plan included a promise to sanitize this little patch of spectrum to make sure it was "kid-friendly." What better way to win a spot in the heart of legislators and regulators than to promise network-wide Net filtering! After all, many lawmakers have long considered this the Holy Grail of Internet policy. Eshoo's bill would mandate such filtering by requiring that the licensee "offer such free data service with a technology protection measure or measures that protect underage users from accessing obscene or indecent material through such service."

It's surprising that so few people are discussing the dangers of this portion of the proposal. After all, what we are talking about here is a blueprint for widespread, government-mandated censorship of the Internet. Many folks, including the Wall Street Journal in today's editorial, seem to be under the impression that the mandate is strictly directed at "pornography"--and nothing more. But Rep. Eshoo’s bill clearly requires filtering of "obscene orindecent material." Defining obscenity is difficult enough. But including "indecent" content will open up a Pandora's Box of regulatory shenanigans. One need do nothing more than read a few pages of broadcast regulatory history to appreciate the practical challenge that awaits both providers and regulators as they attempt to monitor the network to ensure that everything is "decent" for the masses. (Moreover, is that really what the Internet that the masses want?)

Regardless, the important question is not what will be censored, but how it will be censored--a critical detail that neither Chairman Martin nor Rep. Eshoo have spelled out. But, in all likelihood, we're talking about something more that just downloadable filters for consumers to install themselves if they so chose--leaving the decision to individuals and parents, where it belongs in a free society. Instead, it seems clear that we are talking about server-side, network-wide filtering that will essentially be forced on all users of the network. Such a technological solution will greatly slow down the already primitive network being proposed under this plan. But, more importantly, we have to wonder what sort of precedent is being established here for other broadband networks and the rest of the Net.

Of course, policymakers will respond by saying that the plan is simply another regulatory quid pro quo: We rig the auctions to drive down the cost, and you, the winning carrier, clean up the Net for us. That's all easier said than done, and it raises a host of constitutional issues in the process. There are many better ways to protect kids,[7] and there are certainly better ways to run a spectrum auction.

*Adam Thierer is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at The Progress & Freedom Foundation (PFF). Berin Szoka is a Visiting Fellow with PFF. The views expressed here are their own, and are not necessarily the views of the PFF board, fellows or staff.

  1. Jerry Brito, "Public Safety Spectrum, Here We Go Again," Technology Liberation Front blog, March 31, 2008, http://techliberation.com/2008/03/31/public-safety-spectrum-here-we-go-
  2. "The Political Spectrum," The Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2008, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121270792982850259.html?mod=opinion_
  3. See "FCC Looks to Auction "AWS III" Spectrum This Year Likely with Mandate for Free, Family-Friendly Service," Washington Telecom, Media & Tech Insider, May 30, 2008, p. 3.
  4. John Dunbar, "FCC Chief's Free Broadband Plan Delayed," Associated Press, June 6, 2008, http://www.wtop.com/?nid=108&sid=1416507.
  5. Adam Thierer, Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods, Progress & Freedom Foundation Special Report, Version 3.0, Spring 2008, www.pff.org/parentalcontrols


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