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'Open Access' Proposal Gains Steam

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WASHINGTON Support appears to be building for a proposal by Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin that could turn a huge chunk of the nation's airwaves into a new broadband pipe.

A majority of the commissioners told lawmakers Tuesday that they supported Martin's plan to require winners of an upcoming airwaves auction to set aside a portion of the frequencies for other users.

The so-called "open access" provisions of Martin's plans have been among the most disputed, with Democrats generally wanting more stringent requirements and Republicans seeking no requirements at all.

"Consumers would be able to use the wireless device of their choice and download whatever software they want," Martin told the House Commerce Committee's subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

Martin's support on the commission comes from Democrats; Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein joined the Republican in supporting his plan, though they wanted to go further. Republican commissioners Robert McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate refused to say where they stood on the proposal.

The battle over the "700 MHz" auction has pitted many of the nation's new high-tech giants, such as Google, Yahoo and Skype, against such entrenched incumbents as Verizon and AT&T.

The Googles of the world contend that without an "open access" requirement, tech biggies will lock up the frequencies, while the Verizons of the world contend that restrictions on the frequencies will stifle innovation.

Both sides want the frequencies that are being vacated by the nation's TV broadcasters in the switch to digital television for the same reasons they work so well for analog TV—they penetrate walls and go longer distances with less deterioration. Such frequencies make it a valuable platform to transmit the content (from voice to full-motion video) that travels over the Internet.

The FCC has yet to schedule the auction, but Congress required the event to occur by Jan. 28, 2008. It could vote on the auction rules as early as next week.