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FCC auction about wireless’ future

– U.S. regulators preparing to auction airwaves craved by wireless providers to meet demand from data-hungry smartphones are facing a divisive choice: how much to devote instead to mobile service that can be free.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, who has pushed for broader access to high-speed Internet, backs a vision shared by Google and Microsoft of setting aside spectrum for mobile services that have not yet been invented.

He’s accused opponents of waging a “nascent war on Wi-Fi,” the aerial Internet connection found globally in coffee shops and offices.

Airwaves withheld from the auction and allocated to new uses would mean fewer frequencies for established carriers such as AT&T, whose largest effort to add spectrum was quashed in 2011 when the FCC objected to its proposed acquisition of T- Mobile USA.

“The largest holders of spectrum have no interest in seeing new competition,” Cathy Sloan, vice president of government relations with the Computer & Communications Industry Association, said in an interview.

Members of the Washington-based trade group include Google, Microsoft, the biggest social network operator Facebook and Internet radio provider Pandora.

Carriers straining to meet growing demand from smartphones and tablets want as many airwaves as possible, Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, said.

“Let’s find a way to maximize the amount of reclaimed spectrum that’s devoted to licensed operations,” or carriers operating under FCC imprimatur, Carpenter said.

Members of the Washington-based trade group include AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel, which together serve almost nine in 10 U.S. wireless subscribers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The debate is part of a broader discussion at the FCC about rules for divvying airwaves during the auction next year of frequencies now used by television stations. Station owners that opt to participate will be assigned new frequencies.

The FCC in September voted unanimously to begin crafting auction rules, and Genachowski’s proposal for unlicensed or Wi-Fi use was part of that package.

“This is about the wireless companies trying to wrest spectrum from the broadcasters,” Gigi Sohn, president of the Washington-based advocacy group Public Knowledge, said in an interview. The FCC is trying to set rules so broadcasters offer enough airwaves for mobile carriers, and so “that at the end, some of that spectrum is being preserved for other uses,” Sohn said.

Bigger arguments are in store as the FCC decides how to conduct the auction, which may generate $15.2 billion and is to provide $7 billion to help build a nationwide wireless network for public-safety officials.

The FCC would be allowed to bar particular companies from bidding on some blocks of airwaves, California Rep. Henry Waxman, the senior Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, told the House last year, according to the Congressional Record.

The agency can set a limit on airwaves acquisitions by any company, Waxman said.

Waxman spoke in opposition to remarks four days earlier by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who chairs the committee.

“The FCC should not be picking winners and losers,” Upton said, according to the Congressional Record.

The agency can’t exclude qualified bidders, Upton said.