What will a new FCC look like?

Chalk one up for FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. He managed to cross some high-profile initiatives off his to-do list before his tenure as chairman is likely up once President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

Back in August, it was looking doubtful that the commission was going to rule on a number of key issues that impact the future of broadband wireless. Yet earlier this month Martin and company approved the use of white-space devices for super-WiFi services amid a flurry of lobbying both for and against the initiative. It okayed the New Clearwire deal, which involves Sprint pooling its WiMAX assets with Clearwire with the help of millions from Intel, Google and cable operators to roll out a nationwide mobile broadband network. And it approved Verizon Wireless' $28.1-billion proposed buyout of Alltel to create the nation's largest operator.

The other major wireless initiatives left on the table are the auction of spectrum in the AWS-3 band and a re-auction of the 700 MHz D-block. The AWS-3 auction would require the licensee to dedicate 25 percent of its network capacity to free broadband service, install a network-based Internet filtering system to block pornography and allow open access to third-party devices and applications. Again, the commission is facing some stiff opposition to the plan from operators such as T-Mobile that worry about interference with the AWS-1 band, but the FCC's own engineering studies show that AWS-3 and AWS-1 networks can safely co-exist.

Will Martin be able to stay to see them through? Martin has hinted to the fact that he may stay on at least through the digital TV transition in February. Whether he stays permanently or retains his chairmanship is of course questionable now that Democrat President-elect Barack Obama is taking office. However, it didn't seem like Martin did all that much to anger Democrats. In fact, Democrats generally support his AWS-3 auction plan and the idea of wireless broadband bridging that pesky Digital Divide. He also recently sided with Democratic FCC commissioners to eke out a 3-2 vote to punish cable TV giant Comcast for blocking file-sharing traffic.

Yet, President-elect Obama's campaign was based on change, and change is what the FCC will likely get. Right now a host of names are floating around as potential successors and commissioners. And if the FCC sees a major shake-up you can guarantee an industry shake-up, and incumbent operators will be fighting about more than just whether proposed wireless broadband initiatives interfere with their operations. Everything from revisiting the spectrum cap to stricter merger scrutiny to forced open access among all operators could be on the table, according to industry pundits. And you thought white spaces and a free broadband plans were radical. --Lynnette