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We may be facing a major moment in industry history: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is looking at using the Universal Service Fund (USF) to fund broadband deployment. In the past, the use of the USF has been purely voice-oriented, and has hitherto transferred large sums of money from urban and suburban telecoms users to rural operators.

If this goes ahead, watch out for many operators deciding that it’s time to set an out-of-service date for the PSTN itself - USF subsidies are assessed by PSTN line, and if they start flowing in other ways, there’s not much reason to go entirely cellular or to VoIP.

It could also find very significant sums of money for fibre deployment, and it’s likely to reinforce the paradoxical situation in which some of the tiny rural operators - RLECs - that the USF supports, can offer rather better service than the giant RBOCs that dominate urban and suburban America, and whose subscribers eventually pay for the USF. (That, however, does represent a transfer from the rich to the poor.)

Other regulatory decisions - for example, whether USF money can be used in the cities, and whether the common carrier provisions that apply to voice and wholesale T1/DSL at the moment will survive the end of the PSTN - are going to determine the future shape of the industry. But this one will certainly mean it won’t stay the same.

It’s probably worth remembering the sudden interest by various carriers at MWC in third-party VoIP. Brough Turner, meanwhile, points out that although LTE is designed to be all-IP, with well-known and awful consequences for voice, the first spectrum allocations have turned out to be the FDD ones optimised for…circuit-switched voice.

Some people are unwilling to wait; this US town is threatening to rename itself Google in a bid to get one of their FTTH demonstration projects. Meanwhile, a major round of grants were approved by NTIA, with 14 broadband middle-mile projects getting the green light. A major winner is Level(3)’s project to extend open access backhaul to 47 new POPs, which gets $14 million for six projects.

The UK’s Broadband Stakeholder Group is gearing up for yet another round of consultations at OFCOM, which have a deadline of the 1st of April. (Insert your April Fool joke here.) The specific issue is the special business rates (for readers outside the UK - property taxes) that are applied to fibre runs in Britain - this is both a major added cost of fibre deployment and a barrier to duct-sharing, as the act of blowing fibre through the duct triggers a hike in the rates.

So far, the estimated costs for a national broadband network include taxes based on rough guesses of the cost of laying fibre. The BSG and Computer Weekly are appealing for anyone who can help to lighten their darkness with real data, hoping that the actuals may turn out to be significantly less onerous. OFCOM is also thinking about net neutrality.

And this week’s merger rumour involves Vodafone and 3UK, which would reduce the number of competing radio networks in the UK to two.

In India, meanwhile, BSNL’s famous 93 million line “megatender” is off again after months of on-off. The Central Vigilance Commission, a government anti-corruption taskforce, reckons that it’s impossible for the process to reach a genuinely competitive conclusion - NSN, Alcatel, and ZTE have all been disqualified, which leaves only Ericsson and Huawei, and they’re likely to split the job between them.

Telenor’s chief in Asia has given some clues about their strategy in India (as Unitech Wireless) - he expects to cover about half the market by the summer, to price the service as a premium product, to mostly rely on tower-sharing, and to sit out at least the first rounds of 3G spectrum auctions.

Sprint, meanwhile, is planning another round of the price wars, with a monthly price of $70 for all the data, SMS, and voice you can inhale. 3UK is offering 750 minutes, and all the SMS and data you can use, and a Nokia X6 for £35 a month for two years. Similarly, NTT DoCoMo fights back against Softbank, with…lower prices and dongles.

In devices news, it looks like the first Android devices on AT&T will have Yahoo! configured as the default search engine. It is probably fair to say that Google didn’t envisage this when they started cutting code on a mobile operating system. Tangentially, both Microsoft and Google are buyers of TV ads while being sellers of Web ones. However, as Connected Planet asks, does being the default search engine really count for anything? After all, Google is just a bookmark away, and so many carriers implement so bizarrely the fairly simple concept of “a link to google.com/yahoo.com on the front page” that being a default might even be a net negative.

Android, it turns out, is also the choice of DARPA, the storied boffin-tank funded by the US military that gave us much of the Internet protocols. DARPA is looking at setting up - what else? - an app store as a means of getting new applications into the field quickly. For the first round at least, participants have been told that Android is where it’s at, and that the military is keen on getting lightweight UMTS kit of its own into theatre in order to provide the necessary bandwidth. (Readers may remember Private Mobile Networks.)

In the ultra-light, ultra-low cost networks world, David “OpenBTS” Burgess and Tim “PhoneFromHere” Panton have just been in Niue, where they’ve deployed the first national GSM network powered by OpenBTS and Asterisk. Of course, “national” is a relative term on a tiny Pacific island, but they did have some trouble with spectrum management - a local WLAN operator using the 900MHz band without telling anyone. PMN, you may recall, suggested that their customers wouldn’t have this problem because they had bigger tanks, but that wasn’t really an option.

Microsoft has announced a new gadget, cooperating with Verizon Wireless. Confusingly, “Pink” does not come with MS Windows Phone, but rather the older MS Windows Mobile 6.5.

Apple and Nokia are suing; Apple has also apparently just tried to patent life, the universe, and everything. Your roundup of iPad rumours is here.

A good patent row always tends to lead us towards the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has lately been celebrating 20 years since the case of FBI vs. Steve Jackson Games and its foundation. This week, they handed in a giant petition to the FCC demanding net neutrality.

Perhaps they - or their UK opposite number, could have a go at this? The BBC has just terminated a third-party client for iPlayer on the grounds it does too much caching, which could lead to mixed dancing a copyright violation. That’s arguable, but they seem to be on much shakier ground with this piece of work, in which they barred users of the XBMC open-source Flash replacement.

A boost for MeeGo; Orange has signed up to support the Nokia/Intel mobile Linux platform as a “channel for consumer multimedia”, whatever that may mean.

After the UAE’s efforts to hack the whole national BlackBerry fleet, Saudi Arabia has taken a less flaky but no less authoritarian approach - they’re planning to simply ban the BlackBerry Messenger instant-messaging service, presumably because they can’t snoop on it easily.

The European Union is mad at Poland’s incumbent telco, which is accused of deliberately delaying competing operators’ access to infrastructure. Charter Communications is looking at mobile of some form, perhaps through being a major MVNO customer on Clearwire. A French hypermarket group wants to launch an MVNO in Brazil. Qualcomm’s dual-mode chips find their way into a femtocell. Did the head of Google Europe really mean that the PC will be irrelevant in 3 years?

A report on the suicides at France Telecom is out.

And High Scalability has a must-read interview-cum-meta-feature on Amazon.com.

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