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Picking Business Models at the FCC

Steven Titch
October 14, 2008, 1:26pm

A test conducted last month in Seattle by the FCC has determined that the use of a block of spectrum the agency wants reserved for free, ad-supported national broadband WiFi wireless service will not interfere with existing commercial services. The conclusion provides technological cover for Chairman Kevin Martin's foray into business model regulation. Apparently, he thinks it's just peachy keen that M2Z Networks wants to create a tier of free Internet service, albeit advertiser-supported, that he's willing to set aside a chunk of prime spectrum space to give the start-up a leg up on companies like AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, Boingo and Wayport that (tsk, tsk) insist on charging for wireless access. Oh, to have friends in high places. Once you look at the details of M2Z's plan, however, you have to wonder how different it will be. "Free service" will be a low-tier offering. M2Z customers willing to pay a fee will be able to sign up for faster service. And, given that M2Z is not truly giving service away–advertising is a broadband service revenue model already being explored by Google--it's hard to say why M2Z deserves to be singled out for favorable treatment. Or could it be the fact, reported yesterday by PC World, that M2Z promises "family-friendly" content? That means access to adult content, be it pornography or WebMD page on Viagra, will be blocked unless the customer requests specifically for filtering to be removed. This sort of thing is right up Martin's alley (even if it goes against the FCC's own net neutrality guidelines). The chairman, who is rumored to be mulling a run for Congress in North Carolina, has been looking for every chance he can to look tough on regulating media content, despite more setbacks than successes. The anonymous PC World reporter is as dubious as I am.
Hang on -- "family-friendly"? You've got that right, Ron Jeremy. The free access would have certain restrictions to keep kids from clicking onto questionable content. The system, though, would have some kind of option to let adults go filter-free, according to early plans. (And we're sure no teenager would be able to figure it out. Right.) It's worth noting that the battle for the bid isn't a purely noble cause. The FCC would require at least a quarter of the airspace to be used for the free Internet access. The remaining three-quarters, though, could be used for those subscription-based services aimed at families who want faster connections. The free service, the FCC's Martin says, would be "designed for lower-income people who may not otherwise have access to the Internet." Of course, this is the same guy claiming teenagers won't find a way to crack the filter and pull up porn -- so until something actually surfaces, we may have to take it all with a grain of salt.


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