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News briefs: FCC backs Open Internet; AT&T may snub spectrum auction

In telecom news, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler voices support for Open Internet and, AT&T threatens to boycott the FCC's 2015 spectrum auction.

FCC chairman commits to 'Open Internet', despite proposed Net neutrality changes

Encyclopedias have already been written about the upcoming proposed FCC rules that could eliminate Net neutrality, but May 15 is still the day the commission will vote on the draft and open the public comments process. In light of the preliminary uproar, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler took to his April 29 blog to address opponents' worst fears about how the new rules could hurt consumers if Internet service providers are allowed to charge for priority traffic handling, which some fear could leave consumers in the slow lane and squelch innovation. If his attempt to rewrite the rules fails, Wheeler said he wouldn't hesitate to reclassify Internet service as a utility, just like traditional telephone service.

"If we observe anyone taking advantage of the rule, I won't hesitate to use Title II," he wrote, referring to the Telecommunications Act classification for regulated telecommunications services.

Wheeler reiterated that he wants to preserve an "Open Internet," adding that "some recent commentary has had a misinformed interpretation of the Open Internet Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which is currently before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). First, this is not a final decision by the commission, but rather a formal request for input on a proposal, as well as a set of related questions. Second, as the notice makes clear, all options for protecting and promoting an Open Internet are on the table." (Kate Gerwig)

AT&T threatens to boycott FCC auction

AT&T is threatening to boycott the FCC spectrum auction next year because of "complicated and unnecessary" restrictions on larger companies, according to a filing by Joan March, AT&T vice president of federal regulatory affairs.

The spectrum auction involves buying airwaves from broadcasters, repackaging them and selling them to wireless companies, according to Ars Technica. Larger carriers like AT&T believe restrictions placed on them during the auction will prevent the auction from reaching the revenue goal mandated by Congress. Smaller wireless companies argue that limits on larger carriers will give them the opportunity to compete in the market.

Ars Technica reported the FCC is planning to set aside up to 30 MHz of spectrum in each market for smaller carriers with less low-frequency spectrum to bid on without competition from larger carriers.

Wheeler called AT&T on its threat, however. "I have a hard time envisioning this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this kind of beach-front spectrum being something that people throw up their hands and walk away from," Wheeler said at an FCC meeting.

The auction's proposal will be voted on at the FCC's May 15 meeting.

Google expanding services for carrier competition

Google may be expanding its Google Fiber services by offering a wireless network in cities that have Google Fiber Internet and TV. International Business Times reported that Google is allegedly exploring supplementing its high-speed fiber-optic network with a wireless cellular service for smartphone users.

The potential move toward wireless services brings Google closer to competing with telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon. Google has declined to discuss specifics for a wireless service. In an email to IDG News Service, Google said: "We'd love to be able to bring Wi-Fi access to all of our Fiber cities, but we don't have any specific plans to announce [that] right now."

Google Fiber is currently available in Kansas City, Mo. and Provo, Utah, and is expanding to Austin, Texas. Google is in discussions with 34 other cities to expand its Fiber network in 2015, including Portland, Ore. and Atlanta, Ga.

Google is also starting a pilot program in Kansas City to offer Google Fiber to small businesses. Google emailed a questionnaire to businesses to indicate those interested in participating in the program.

"People have been really clamoring for a small-business service," Google spokeswoman Jenna Wandres told the Kansas City Business Journal. "We're just in the beginning of figuring out what that product could look like, and that's why we're launching this pilot."

AT&T positions for gigabit broadband rollout and services (maybe)

AT&T may go head-to-head with Google in terms of fiber rollouts, and if conditions and local incentives are right, the carrier said it will build out 1 Gbps fiber-optic services in up to 21 metropolitan areas (although no guarantees). This would be followed by offering AT&T's GigaPower services on its U-verse broadband network. AT&T plans to work with communities to bring super-fast broadband services to cities, including Kansas City, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose, among others. (Of course, any overlap among cities also chosen by Google for fiber broadband deployment is merely coincidental.) AT&T announced discussions about a North Carolina Next Generation Network U-verse rollout earlier in April, which needs the go-ahead from six city councils.

What could travel over all of that fiber? AT&T just happened to announce a joint venture with The Chernin Group to invest more than $500 million in over-the-top video services, in what could be seen as positioning for a rumble with traditional television and scrappy, hipper startups.  The Chernin Group's Peter Chernin just happens to be a former president of Fox News. The stated goal of the joint venture is to invest in advertising and subscription-based video on-demand channels and streaming services. The online programming could ride into homes on U-verse broadband connections rather than through cable set-top boxes, and onto smartphones and tablets via the AT&T wireless network. (Kate Gerwig)

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Do you think that municipal fiber networks are one way to keep an open Internet?