Google to Bid for Wireless Spectrum

First Step in Plan to Open Up Mobile Web

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NEW YORK ( -- Google will enter an upcoming auction for a wireless spectrum, which, if it wins, would allow the search giant to join cable and phone companies as a third provider of local internet access and cellular phone service.

The company posted an official notice of its entrance on its public-policy blog: "We see the upcoming 700 megahertz spectrum auction at the Federal Communications Commission as one of the best opportunities consumers will have to enjoy more choices in the world of wireless devices."

No 'locked' phones
Over the summer, Google appealed the FCC to impose four conditions on the auction's bidders and the agency approved two of those. Those bidding on the auction will be required to allow consumers to run any program they want on their cellphones, effectively barring carriers from "locking" phones. Bidders will also be required to offer open device standards so consumers can switch carriers without having to switch handsets.

Earlier this week, Verizon, which is also expected to bid for the spectrum, made an announcement that met with the two requirements: It will allow Americans to pick new phones, ringtones, games and other applications to run on its network -- even if they didn't buy them from Verizon.

Because two of Google's requests were not met, it wasn't clear if the search giant would enter the auction, since the FCC did not agree to open up the network as wide as Google wanted. The FCC decided not to require that those bidding on the spectrum let third parties acquire new wireless services at wholesale rates, and the agency did not guarantee it wouldn't impose limits on the locations in which third parties can tap a carrier's network.

In an interview after Google's Zeitgeist event in October, co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin talked about their desire to make phones more open, much like PCs and the internet. Doing that, they believe, will help spur innovation in the wireless space and get data access to more people.

A massive opportunity
"Google obviously benefits by having more and easier access to internet. To extend wireless devices [so they] work better will benefit us and people in general. If there's any way we can accelerate that we will," said Mr. Page, who also lamented that search is "still pretty slow" on the phone. In theory the wireless space presents a massive opportunity for internet giants -- perhaps even bigger than the PC web.

While still a relatively small part of the market in the U.S., internet-enabled phones are growing globally and the number of mobile devices greatly outnumbers the number of PCs. Google's Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf, speaking at Google's Analyst Day, noted there are 3 billion mobile phones in use today, compared to about 1 billion PCs.

Google's blog post, announcing the company's entry into the auction, presented an open mobile network almost as a community service: "Consumers deserve more choices and more competition than they have in the wireless world today. And at a time when so many Americans don't have access to the internet, this auction provides an unprecedented opportunity to bring the riches of the net to more people."

Google has long been a proponent of network-neutrality legislation, which would require all web traffic to be treated equally. The legislation was proposed to address the worry that the companies owning the broadband pipes -- cable and phone companies -- could essentially create a fast and slow lane for web traffic, charging content and service companies for the higher-speed delivery. Google's vying for a piece of the spectrum is also considered a hedge against that sort of scenario.

The spectrum is available thanks to the transition from analog to digital TV. The deadline for entering the bidding is Dec. 3; the auction begins Jan. 24, 2008.

Contributing: Ira Teinowitz
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