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FCC cancels meeting for free Internet vote

By Jennifer Guevin | Cnet.com | Dec. 13, 2008

The Federal Communications Commission has canceled a meeting scheduled at which it planned to vote on a controversial free Internet plan.

The group has been considering whether it should auction off 25 megahertz of wireless spectrum in the 2155MHz to 2180MHz band. In exchange for using the spectrum, the FCC would require license holders to offer some free wireless broadband service, as a way to provide free Internet access to millions of Americans who either can't afford or don't want to pay for high-speed Internet access. That Web service would have been filtered for pornography and material deemed not suitable for children. People 18 and over would have the option to opt out of the filtered service.

The FCC was set to vote on the plan at a meeting on Thursday, December 18. But the plan has been met with opposition from several top officials, wireless providers, and even civil rights groups.

In a letter sent to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin on Wednesday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez expressed the Bush administration's opposition to the idea of imposing requirements on spectrum buyers.

"The administration believes that the (airwaves) should be auctioned without price or product mandate," Gutierrez wrote, according to The Wall Street Journal. "The history of FCC spectrum auctions has shown that the potential for problems increases in instances where licensing is overly prescriptive or designed around unproven business models."

The element of Web filtering worried at least one privacy group. "It's very troubling," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Los Angeles Times. "A government-mandated filter at the network level means the government can block anything it finds objectionable."

Existing wireless providers objected to the plan for entirely different issues. T-Mobile USA, which spent $4.2 billion in 2006 to acquire spectrum in an adjacent band, said that opening up this spectrum would cause interference and disrupt service, a claim the FCC says it disproved in October.

And other logistical questions--such as exactly how the service would be filtered for inappropriate content and how the age of people who opted out of the filtered service would be verified--remained unanswered.

The FCC has other problems as well. Earlier this week, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce released a report accusing Martin of ignoring his responsibilities and abusing his power as FCC chairman. A detailed report released on Tuesday and stemming from a bipartisan investigation in January claims Martin manipulated and withheld information from Congress and other FCC commissioners, and ignored evidence that certain national communications programs were being grossly mismanaged. The report describes a "climate of fear" that pervades the FCC and kept some people from testifying publicly.

Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Henry Waxman, (D-Calif.) on Friday sent a letter to Martin asking him to not to take action on any controversial policy proposals, according to the Journal. And on Friday night, the FCC reported it would, in fact, cancel the upcoming meeting.

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