Backlash hits wireless broadband auction

Government officials are threatened with a skewering by a leading US wireless guru as the 3.4GHz auction comes under more criticism

Opposition to the forthcoming 3.4GHz wireless broadband auction is growing, from both Welsh politicians and influential grassroots activists.

Several members of the Welsh Assembly are understood to be keen to try and derail the auction, which is due to start in May, and a leading US wireless broadband specialist has urged e-envoy Andrew Pinder to intervene to stop what he called "this destructive decision".

As ZDNet UK reported earlier this week, critics of the auction process are unhappy about the way the various licences have been drawn up. Rather than create two licences covering the whole of Wales, the principality has been split into four parts -- each of which are bundled in with parts of England.

This move, opponents claim, is a disaster for Wales and means the principality has much less chance of seeing a widespread rollout of wireless broadband services.

The government, though, insists that its plans have the backing of the telecoms industry, and provide the best business case for wireless broadband.

Plaid Cymru, the nationalist Welsh party, has serious concerns about the way the 3.4GHz licences have been drawn up. In a speech earlier this week, Professor Phil Williams -- Plaid Cymru's spokesperson on IT -- claimed that the auction process as it stands is "a disaster for Wales".

In particular, Williams was critical of the government's decision not to include any rollout obligations in the licence conditions.

"These [licence] boundaries do not make any sense whatsoever, technically or commercially. Even worse, the contract terms do not impose any obligation on the companies to provide a uniform service. The decision will be made on the size of the bid and not on the merit of the proposal," said Williams in a speech to the Welsh Assembly on Tuesday.

"The Labour government in London has shown what contempt it has for the much-vaunted plans for IT in Wales. The failure of the Assembly Government to develop communications in Wales will perhaps become the greatest in a long list of failings," added Williams, putting some of the blame on the Labour-run Welsh Assembly.

Andrew Davies, the Welsh e-minister and minister for economic development, is also disappointed about the way the licences were drawn up. It is understood, though, that he is inclined to accept the Radiocommunications Agency's (RA) decision.

Dave Hughes, a retired US Army colonel and one of the pioneers of the Internet and wireless broadband, is determined to force the government to change the auction process.

In a hard-hitting email to e-envoy Andrew Pinder, Hughes -- who has advised Andrew Davies about wireless broadband -- slammed as "outrageous" the way the RA has drawn up the 3.4GHz licences.

"It will act to INCREASE the digital divide. The whole charade comes across to me as a DELIBERATE effort to deny large areas of Wales the benefits of broadband. This, after British Telecom under your regulatory polices has utterly failed to bring broadband to Wales for the last 10 years. And now your government itself is perpetuating the economic discrimination by Wireless Auction! I am outraged!" wrote Hughes.

Hughes also told the e-envoy that unless the government changed its mind and offered two Wales-only 3.4GHz licences he would "condemn your government's decision, skewer by name every official who perpetrated this abomination on Wales, embarrass your prime minister -- calling his once-visionary plans to bring broadband to ALL of England a hollow mockery, and brand the action as a deliberate effort by the UK government to economically enhance economic opportunities in parts of England at the EXPENSE of Wales!"

A spokesman for the e-envoy's office has told ZDNet UK that Andrew Pinder has not received this email, and added that the 3.4GHz auction is the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

The DTI, though, points out that the proposal for two Wales-only licences was considered, and rejected, in last year's 3.4GHz consultation process.

"We have to stand by that consultation. There was little support for the proposal [to draw up licences on geopolitical lines], and we think our proposal -- which is based on research by independent market experts -- offers the best business case," a DTI spokesman told ZDNet UK.

However, the DTI refused to say whether it is possible that the licences could be redrawn, as Plaid Cymru and Hughes both insist is necessary. "We couldn't possibly comment on speculation," the DTI spokesman added.

See the Broadband News Section for the latest on cable modems, ADSL, satellite and other high-speed access technologies, including a comprehensive guide to the best deals out there.

For a weekly round-up of the latest broadband-related news, sign up for The Broadband Informer newsletter.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom.