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Free broadband plan on hold after FCC meeting is scrapped

A vote that would have decided whether U.S. Internet users would get access to free, nationwide broadband service has been put off. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) canceled a meeting scheduled for Thursday at which regulators would have decided whether the agency would auction off a spectrum of unused airwaves for the purpose of building the massive network.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Rep. Henry Waxman of California, both Democrats, wrote FCC Chairman Kevin Martin on Friday, asking him to hold off on any FCC business unrelated to the February switch to digital TV, according to Reuters. They’re worried that the transition will cause problems for the 15 percent of U.S. households that don’t have digital tuners and use over-the-air antennae to receive broadcasts.

“In light of the letter, it does not appear that there is consensus to move forward and the agenda meeting has been canceled," FCC spokesman Rob Kenny said in a statement.

The plan mirrored a proposal developed by the Menlo Park, Calif., wireless startup M2Z to auction off wireless spectrum in the 2155MHz to 2180MHz band. The winner would have had to use a quarter of it for free broadband, in exchange for selling faster service on the remaining 75 percent.
 
Though Martin had advocated the plan, the White House discouraged him from pushing it through, saying the plan shouldn’t favor one company’s business model, according to the Associated Press. Wireless carriers lobbied fiercely against it, saying that use of the spectrum would interfere with their cell phone service. And free speech advocates disliked its restrictions on porn.

The plan could come up for a vote at a future monthly meeting of the commission, but it's not clear whether that will happen before President-elect Barack Obama takes office. Obama has said wireless services could be a way to increase broadband access, the AP notes. "We Americans are creating a two-tier digital society," M2Z cofounder Milo Medin told the newswire. "If you're not connected today, you're really at a disadvantage. But we can remove barriers that isolate people from the digital domain."

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