Copyright 2007 Chicago Tribune Company

Even though Chicago backed away from building a citywide wireless broadband service, as have several other cities, some people still hope to offer free wireless Internet, not just here but nationwide.

John Muleta, chief of M2Z Networks, visited Chicago recently to attend a WiMax wireless trade show and talk about his dream. He wants to build a national network that would offer free low-speed, G-rated Internet access, supported by advertisements targeted by geography. The system also would offer a faster, ad-free, unrestricted-access Internet service for a fee and would sell wholesale service.

Muleta, a 20-year telecom veteran who has held executive positions with the Federal Communications Commission as well as private companies, has financial backing from Silicon Valley, but he has been unable to launch the service because the FCC has declined to act on his petition to use 20 megahertz of radio spectrum that has been lying fallow for eight years.

"Less than 6 percent of spectrum suitable for commercial services is actually being used to deploy commercial services today," Muleta said. Much available spectrum is being "warehoused" by telecom giants such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., he said.

This helps big phone companies and cable TV operators keep control of the duopoly that supplies high-speed Internet to most consumers who have it, Muleta said, and it explains why about half of American households do not have broadband connections. He predicts that when the FCC puts prime new spectrum up for auction in January, the big boys will bid up the price and lock up that spectrum to protect their duopoly.

Muleta has offered to pay a percentage of his company's earnings to lease the spectrum that has gone unused and said his network will cover one-third of Americans within three years, two-thirds within five years and 95 percent of the population within 10 years. But he needs FCC approval to proceed.

Nearly 18 months after Muleta laid out his proposal, the FCC decided against making a clear decision and instead opted to extend the consideration process.

Although bureaucratic dithering may be standard for the government, it doesn't serve the public interest or the quick-changing world of the Internet, Muleta said. Truly innovative ideas seldom win FCC approval without intervention by Congress or the courts, he said.

In his bid to get some action from the FCC, Muleta, who is an African-American, has enlisted help from several groups and individuals, including Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

"M2Z offers a rare opportunity to expand minority ownership in American media and add a new voice to the public discourse," Jackson wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

Jackson urged the FCC to hold public forums to ask people whether they would like to have another choice in broadband that is free. One suspects the commissioner can guess the answer.

To compete with the incumbents, Muleta said, "you have to have a price-disruptive model." Trouble is, the big guys don't like being disrupted.