FCC official backs open-access for wireless auction

CHICAGO, June 20 (Reuters) - One of the five members of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday threw his support behind a proposal that would require the winner of a coming auction of valuable wireless airwaves to offer access to rivals.

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat, said he supports the idea of imposing an “open-access” condition on companies bidding to acquire part of the spectrum.

“We need to identify meaningful spectrum on which to establish an open-access environment,” Adelstein told Reuters, expanding on remarks he made earlier at a telecommunications industry conference. “This will open these key airwaves to badly needed competition.

The FCC is preparing to auction a swath of wireless airwaves in the 700 megahertz band, which are being returned by broadcasters as they move from analog to digital signals early in 2009.

The airwaves are considered valuable because they can travel long distances and penetrate thick walls. The auction is seen as the last opportunity for a new player to enter the wireless market.

FCC officials are expected to hold the sale later this year and are in the process of setting the auction rules.

The rules will be crucial for the five or six biggest players like Verizon Communications Inc. VZ.N and AT&T Inc. T.N, that want to bolster their networks, as well as for dozens of regional and local players.

An open-access requirement would allow other companies to buy access on the winning bidder’s network so they can offer their own wireless services. The idea is being promoted by some consumer advocacy groups, such as Consumers Union and the non-profit Media Access Project.

Some small, start-up wireless companies have also pushed the idea as a way of providing an alternative to the four large nationwide carriers -- Verizon, AT&T, Sprint Nextel Corp. S.N and T-Mobile USA, a unit of Deutsche Telekom AG DTEGn.DE.

Verizon opposes an open-access requirement, arguing that it would diminish the value of the spectrum and be a form of Internet regulation.

The FCC is working within a tight timeframe as it must begin the auction no later than Jan. 28, 2008 and deposit the proceeds into the U.S. Treasury by June 30, 2008.