So recently, with all the spectrum stuff going on, I hear a lot of people asking about something called “M2Z,” usually like this: “So, what the heck is M2Z? And why should I care?”
Two very good questions. Briefly, M2Z is yet-another-plan to solve our national broadband woes through exclusive licensing. Specifically, it is about giving this one company a free, exclusive, national license for the 20 MHz of spectrum left over from the federal spectrum cleared for last summer’s AWS auction. While M2Z filed its application in May ’06, it took the FCC awhile to figure out what to do with it, since it doesn’t have any rules or pending proceedings that cover what M2Z wants. Finally, back in February ’07, the FCC issued a generic public notice of the application as required under the Communications Act and asked for piublic comment on what the heck to do about it.
Given my rather low opinion of Cyren Call’s efforts to get a free, national license, one might expect me to take a similar dim view of M2Z. Nor has M2Z helped its case much with some rather ham-handed “outreach” to the public interest community, by spamming the attendee list of the National Conference on Media Reform and creating a “Coalition for Free Broadband” website that looks all the world like an off-the-shelf Astroturf project.
Finally, Sascha Meinrath, who I look to for wisdom and advice on all matters spectrum, has written this blog entry on why he opposes the M2Z proposal.
Despite all this, I still think that M2Z deserves support. My employer Media Access Project filed a letter in support of M2Z. At the least, it deserves a good hard look before writing it off as yet another theft of spectrum via privatization.
Why? See below . . . .
First, in the interests of full disclosure, I happen to know and like a number of the folks involved in the M2Z project. One the lawyers involved, Kathy Wallman, is on the board of directors of my employer, Media Access Project. One of the engineers involved is Paul Kolodzy, who has done a fair amount of work with New America Foundation in support of unlicensed use of the broadcast white spaces.
So when I see people I like and respect involved in a project, I’m inclined to give a more sympathetic hearing. Also, before they made their rather idiot blunder in hiring a PR firm that has no clue about how the public interest community actually works, the folks involved have been making some serious outreach. In the meetings I and others have had, they’ve been straightforward and honest. Yes, this is a business proposition and about making money. But they have impressed me with their efforts to try to set things up in the best way possible.
With that as background, on to substance. As part of the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act, the federal government is required to clear a bunch of bands for commercial use. The feds identified three bands for clearing and, under the statute, bounced the ball back to the FCC.
The FCC held a rulemaking and deterimined that it would make the best commercial sense to auction two of the bands as “paired” licenses. This is standard for most commercial cellular services because you use one band for the “downstream” path to the subscriber and the other band for the “upstream” path back to the cell site. This left the third band, 20 MHz located at the 2.155 GHz band. It’s been sitting there ever since.
Along comes M2Z. They say “we can do something with this band.” Unlike the 30 MHz of prime spectrum Cyren Call wanted, this 20 MHz is just sitting there. Too small to auction in its own right, and not near anything terribly attractive.
M2Z says they can use the band to bring wireless broadband to everyone. They will offer a free tier (one time equipment purchase) at 384 kbps downstream and 128 kbps upstream. They will also filter this for indecent content to “protect the children” (aka avoid an accusation that we are distributing free porn to minors). They will do a higher speed paid tier offering, but promise to pay 5% of revenue from this subscription service to the U.S. Treasury in lieu of revenues from an auction. (Sascha Meinrath dislikes them calling this a “voluntary” payment, but I do not read this as being “voluntary” in the sense of “we can stop at any time.” Here, “voluntary” means “we offer this as an enfroceable license condition even though the Communications Act doesn’t generally alow the FCC to charge fees for use as opposed to one-time auctions.”) Most importantly, M2Z commits to network neutrality and wireless “Cartefone” rules. That is to say, everyone will be able to attach any device to the network that does not damage the network, and M2Z will not interfere with content.
I like this proposal for a lot of reasons. First, it’s a realistic proposal. It does not promise more than it can deliver. That means they don’t promise whiz-bang speeds or that they can do all this for free. At the same time, the effort to have “something for everyone” (e.g., filtering free content) means there is guarnteed to be something in there someone doesn’t like. Nevertheless, I applaud M2Z for puting its best game out there and saying “take it or leave it” rather than trying to hide problems until fater they get a license.
But while that wins credibility points with me, we still need to look at the actual meat of the proposal. Here’s what I like:
1) Creates a neutral wireless provider that allows any sort of equipment attachment.
2) Provides a model for reimbursing the public for exclusive use of spectrum different from a one-time “big bang” auction.
3) Does provide service to underserved areas where even these speeds are a huge step up.
Let me dwell on the political importance of the first two points and why they matter enormously (heck, that’s what TotSF is for, yes?). As regular readers know, despite my recent monomania about the 700 MHz Auction, I still think auctions suck rocks. At the same time, I do not see licensing going away any time soon. Most of the good spectrum is tied up in licensed services, and the recent demise of two FCC proceedings that would have promoted unlicensed sharing of spectrum with licensed services tells me that I am not going to see cognitive radios eliminating spectrum scarcity anytime soon.
More importantly, I am not going to see it at all unless we start pushing some serious changes in how we view wireless networks and start working our way back from the property model to the public interest model. I personally believe it was a big tactical mistake for folks like Benkler and Lessig to propose to “split the baby” on spectrum and offer to do it half property and half commons. The property folks will cheerfully take everything they can and then whittle away at what we got. The more it looks like licensees own the use of the frequencies covered by a license, rather than simply have a right to use certain frequencies under certain conditions to provide specified services, the harder it becomes to “trespass” on “their” spectrum with applications like ultrawideband or opportunistic sharing. And, the less a license looks like ownership, the easier it becomes to require licensees to share the air with other non-interfering uses. If we get serious about Section 309(h) of the Communications Act (which states that the only right confered by a license is to use the frequencies identified in the manner set forth in the license) and stop treating licenses as somehow “property-like,” then we are on the right road.
This logic doesn’t just apply to opening up to future cognative radios. It also applies to the real here and now over the Skype Petition. Existing wireless networks have all explained that not only shouldn’t they have to open up their networks to any attachement, but that doing so is enormously complicated and dangerous. The wireless incumbents have sworn up and down that any attempt to even think about opening up wireless networks would cause E911 to fail, crash the cell phone networks, and open us up to all kinds of horrible security violations.
These claims could hardly hold up — even to the credulous regulators that inhabit the Forbidden City that is the FCC — is there were a succesfull wireless network actually operating in an open an non-discriminating manner. Further, because I believe openness is the “killer app of killer apps” for networking, I think a network run with net neutrality and network attachment principles would prove highly succesfull, even at slower speeds. Certainly it would put all kinds of competitive pressure on the other wireless networks, as well as increasingly pointed questions about why if M2Z can run an open network, why can’t T-Mobile or AT&T?
The M2Z proposal, by moving back to an open network and by paying a regular “lease fee” of 5% rather than a one-time “purchase price” at auction, moves exclusive licensing back to where it should be: a limited government monopoly to use certain frequencies maintained only so long as this monopoly serves the broader public interest. That helps on the Skype Petition, and it helps on unlicensed spectrum. By contrast, rejecting the M2Z proposal on the grounds that we need to treat licenses as property and auction them off makes it a lot harder politically and as a matter of administrative precedent to do things like the Skype Petition, “underlays”, and other applications that “trespass” on licensed spectrum.
This is in no small part why the licensed services have organized against M2Z. Yes, the incumbents hate the idea of a new entrant starting out with capital to build a network, rather than starting out several billion in the hole bidding on spectrum. But even more so, they hate the idea of an open wireless network out there, competing against them and showing all the world that a neutral wireless network that allows any network attachment can function just fine in the real world.
I would give a lot to see these political points made and advance what I see as the progressive wireless agenda. Would I prefer to see the spectrum in question made available as unlicensed open spectrum instead? Sure. I would love to see more spectrum, including this stuff, out there as open and unlicensed spectrum. But no one has actually proposed such a thing. The closest thing to an alternate proposal for this space, besides the
competing application demanding an auction, is the FCC’s proposal to use this as a testbed for experiments on spectrum sharing with NTIA.
This brings to Sascha’s extremely valid objections. Sascha’s objections boil down to (a) the idea that these speeds constitute “broadband” is a joke, (b) future technologies will make this spectrum extremely valuable, and we should not trade away our spectrum future for magic beans today. Sascha also objects to content-based filtering imbedded in the system as a very serious problem, since it creates a regime of censorship from the get go.
In the end, I think that M2Z is utilizing an incredibly savvy marketing campaign that obfuscates the incredible limitations to their free services and mislead a tremendous number of people into thinking that what they’re offering is far more useful than it actually is. I would love to see groups like M2Z create innovative models that are not so fraught with first amendment, sub-standard service provision, and profit-motive problems. Until that happens, however, we have to be exceedingly weary about trading our precious airwaves away for a song and a dance.
Sascha may end up being right, and ten years from now I may be kicking myself for giving away the equivalent of spectrum Manhattan for beads and trinkets. But I don’t think so. I don’t think we can get to the cognitive radio technologies Sascha is talking about unless we change the terms of the debate, and I think proposals like M2Z that push us away from the property model and back toward a public interest model are critical in making that happen.
I also have a few practical objections to Sascha’s critique. While true that the speeds M2Z promise don’t amount to “broadband” compared to other conutries, it does provide something faster than dial up and affordable for a lot of folks who are twiddling their thumbs waiting for the private sector to deploy. I talked to Paul Kolodzy, who is doing work with M2Z, about the speed point, and he gave me the following additional information.
1) The M2Z proposed speeds are given as the reliable speed throughout the area covered by a tower, rather than the fastest speed available given all favorable assumptions (which is the industry standard). They are trying to be honest and realistic about what they can do, rather than promise faster speeds that are theoretically possible but not really deliverable on a reliable basis.
2) They will improve the speed as technology improves.
I will grant that the later is something everyone says. I will also grant that the biggest problem that arises in any licensing situation is one of trust. Given that the FCC rarely has the political will to revoke a license, licensees understand that they can promise just about everything and then slowly back away from their promises over time. So why trust M2Z at all?
That, I confess, has been the biggest sticking point for me and yet another reason to prefer unlicensed open spectrum to licensed spectrum. I don’t need to trust people using open spectrum to use it appropriately, since the needed limitations are built into the devices themselves. The M2Z folks are the inheritors of the FCC’s crappy policies. Even if M2Z folks are sincere today, what stops them 5 years from now from saying “look, turns out we just can’t do what we thought we could do. We need to renegotiate these license conditions or we can’t even offer limited service.” In which case, I will have traded away a valuable national license and all I will have to show for it are a bunch of broken promises.
But if I decide to live by that logic, then I need to stop working on licensed spectrum issues at all. I do think that we need some safeguards to ensure that the licensees do, in fact, live up their obligations. I think we need to learn from the past and make license conditions as self-executing as possible. But at the end of the day I keep coming back to the reality that licensed spectrum access is still there and will continue to remain the dominant mode of delivery of wireless services unless I (and other supporters of open spectrum) can change the terms of the debate. In the case of M2Z, we have an applicant willing to work with the community to create the necessary safeguards and help that happen. Call me a cockeyed optomist, but I think it’s a chance worth taking.
So yeah, M2Z is a collection of investors that hope to make a profit. No, it doesn’t “solve” the national broadband problem. But it does a heck of a lot of good on issues I care about. Enough to make M2Z worthy of support.
Stay tuned . . . .