Is Cheap Wireless Broadband for Real This Time?

The FCC said today that as part of its National Broadband Plan it might allocate spectrum for a free or low-cost wireless broadband network as a means to help address the affordability of broadband for poor people. If all this sounds familiar to you, maybe you recall the efforts of M2Z Networks, a Kleiner Perkins backed venture that tried to offer filtered, low-cost broadband using WiMAX.

A source at the FCC assures me that the agency’s efforts, which will be detailed next week when the National Broadband Plan comes out, are not similar to M2Z’s plan. M2Z  wanted to offer free subscribers dialup-like speeds of 768 kbps and would have provided filtered access to the web. The source said the FCC’s plan would offer speeds “that are real broadband” and would likely involve using proceeds from the Universal Service Fund reform to offset the cost of building out a network.

However, any federal involvement in the network could lead to to a return of the filtering issue that bogged down M2Z. Those in power are easily swayed by the argument that allocating a federal resource (spectrum) to provide free broadband which children could use to access porn, could lead to negative publicity. A cynic might say this offers excellent cover for the lawmakers who may also be swayed by the telecommunication’s industry’s obvious reluctance to see low-cost or free broadband.

Any company focused on free or low-cost wireless  broadband would also have to figure out how to build a network — a multibillion-dollar proposition. For example, M2Z estimated its network buildout would cost $3-$5 billion. To put that into perspective, the stimulus dollars allocated for broadband are limited to $7.2 billion, and the USF (Universal Service Fund) is currently an $8 billion program.

Getting around a filter, offering real speeds and finding the billions needed to build out a nationwide network are all essential to any FCC plan to “consider use of spectrum for a free or very low-cost wireless broadband service,” as was stated in today’s release on the topic. I wish them luck.

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub req’d):

Everybody Hertz: The Looming Spectrum Crisis

Image courtesy of Gavin St. Ours on Flickr.

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