The Dawn of Free Internet Access ???
It's the sort of news that ought to scare the pants off Comcast executives. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has proposed the commission auction off a portion of the 25 megahertz spectrum with a free provision -- meaning that whoever licenses the spectrum must provide internet access to people for free.
We won't know whether the FCC will proceed with the idea (the commissioners vote on June 12), but the fact that the proposal is even up for consideration must be gratifying to the millions of Comcast and Cox victims who may pay upwards of $40 per month for shoddy broadband access and awful customer service.
A "free" broadband spectrum auction could also help spur internet adoption in the U.S., where there is still a big gaping divide between the broadband haves and have-nots.
"We've been pushing for [free internet access] as a matter of policy for two years," says John Muleta, founder and CEO of M2Z Networks, a company that aims to provide free ad-supported broadband access. "This country is stuck with a low [adoption rate of broadband web access], mainly because it's either not available or it's not affordable in many markets."
Of course, we've heard this song before. Back in 1999, everyone offered free, ad-supported internet access. Yahoo and Kmart teamed up on a free ISP called BlueLight.com; NBC's online arm, NBCi launched one, too; so did many of the major web players of the time, such as AltaVista, Excite and Lycos. Few free ISPs still exist today.
The key difference between then and now, according to Muleta, was that the free ISP of yesteryear was a dial-up service, and its livelihood depended on the terms negotiated with telecom providers.
"The problem was that [the free ISPs] couldn't control their destiny," Muleta says. "The limitation was the deal you could get from the telcos, and the service was supported by banner ads. Now people recognize the value of search-[based advertising.]"
So is Muleta talking to Google, Yahoo or Microsoft about a partnership for the free access?
"We're a Silicon Valley company and we're always talking to potential partners," Muleta says.