This weekend, the Federal Communications Commission got an unexpected surprise when a quarter-million people flooded their offices with letters urging the agency to use our airwaves to connect more Americans to an open and affordable Internet.
The mass outcry comes in advance of the FCC efforts to set rules for the upcoming auction of the 700 MHz band of "spectrum." If used right, this slice of public airwaves could beam cheap, high-speed Internet signals to every park bench, coffee shop, workplace, and home in America.
Dominant phone and cable companies -- including AT&T, Verizon and Comcast -- don't want that. They're spending millions to lobby the FCC and Congress to hand them our airwaves.
Their plan is to horde this valuable asset and stifle competitive and cheaper alternatives to their overpriced networks. The FCC can either decide to open these airwaves to new competitors and innovation or let them be squandered by the same companies that now monopolize access for more than 96 percent of U.S. residential users.
The hundreds of thousands of people who called for open access were sparked in part by SavetheInternet.com Coalition members Free Press, MoveOn.org Civic Action and Working Assets, which alerted their members last week about the upcoming sell-off of this spectrum.
The spectrum auction also attracted the attention of presidential hopeful John Edwards, who last week sent a letter urging the FCC to open up to half of the available airwaves to all Americans.
The Americans who spoke out over the weekend sent a clear signal to the FCC: Use our airwaves for the public good.
It's now up to the FCC to respond.
Chairman Martin at a Crossroads
The FCC has the power to set auction rules that would protect competition and innovation in the marketplace -- and has used this power in the past.
It would be a huge mistake for the federal agency to put our public airwaves in the hands of companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast who see national high-speed wireless Internet as a threat to their existence.
The FCC's commissioners must weigh the public benefit against the narrow interests of this cartel of giant phone and cable companies.
Public Knowledge co-founder Gigi Sohn called this decision "a legacy-defining moment" for FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.
"Will he withstand entreaties from the most powerful media and communications companies in the world to let the "free market" rule the auction?" she asks in a commentary on Huffington Post. "If he does, and shapes the auction to promote new broadband competition, Kevin Martin will have forged a lasting positive legacy."
Martin, who is doubtless looking at his own political prospects, could burnish his reputation by opening the Internet to better competition and innovation. Aside from that, it's simply the right thing to do.
Keeping the Internet People-Powered
Until very recently, most people hadn't heard about this issue, or didn't know that such valuable airwaves are up for grabs.
But this slice of spectrum could hold the key to the future of communications. It once beamed the Brady Bunch, The Cosby's, Charlie's Angels and the A-Team into tens of millions of homes. Stations' imminent switch from analog to digital TV means that this precious air is now available for other uses. In this range, it has the power to send an Internet signal through tall buildings and over mountains -- traveling at the speed of light.
The government hopes that revenues from its sale (anticipated to be as high as $30 billion) will help pay down the national deficit -- burdened by the high cost of fighting in Iraq.
In a filing in April, members of the SavetheInternet.com Coalition -- including Consumers Union, Media Access Project, Public Knowledge and Free Press -- urged the FCC to ensure that the upcoming auction sets aside at least half of the available spectrum for open and nondiscriminatory Internet access. This will guarantee that new competitors have the opportunity to compete in a marketplace until now dominated by a handful of companies.
After years of phone and cable company control over our Internet marketplace, the United States has fallen to 15th in the world in high-speed Internet rankings, with few choices and some of the highest prices for the slowest speeds in the world. We will continue to fall as long as we let a few phone and cable companies dictate access for the vast majority of Americans.
Many people are now spreading the word about this issue using online petitions, blogs and social networks. The recent outpouring of support echoes the grassroots efforts in 2006 when more than 1.5 million people rallied behind the issue of Net Neutrality and stopped efforts by phone and cable companies to become gatekeepers to Internet content.
It's time we had a frank public conversation about how a more open Internet can reinvigorate our economy and democracy. But first we need to stop all efforts to undermine the Internet we have.
Anyone who cares about this should join the fight now.