The FCC’s office of engineering and technology on Friday released a report that opens the door to the development of a free wireless broadband network that would represent an additional tool in public safety’s communications toolkit.

In the report, the FCC concluded that 25 MHz of fallow spectrum in the AWS-3 band—that’s 2155-2180 MHz on your spectrum chart—can be utilized without introducing harmful interference to the adjacent AWS-1 band, where licensed spectrum was auctioned for billions of dollars to multiple carriers, most notably T-Mobile.

The report breathes new life into a proposal made a couple of years ago by M2Z Networks, a startup that believes it can build a nationwide WiMAX network, provide 768 kb/s speeds for free and still make money. The key to the business model is that the company would benefit from advertising and from selling subscriptions to users wanting access to greater bandwidth on the network.

M2Z officials repeatedly have stated that public-safety entities would be allowed to access the network for free, but the company makes no promises regarding priority access, and the network would not be hardened to public-safety standards.

Frankly, the advertising-based, “free” Internet model has failed so many times—both in the wireline and wireless arenas—that it’s difficult to get overly excited about it this time, and it’s difficult to believe that investors would be willing to bet the billions of dollars necessary to make this vision a reality when the capital markets are so tight.

However, if M2Z or some other company could find a way to make it work economically, it would be great. The proposed buildout for such a network would be more aggressive than is currently contemplated for the 700 MHz D Block/public safety shared network.

As a result, this network might be more likely to reach rural areas that cannot afford to build their own broadband solutions. At the very least, such a network could be a nice experimental proving ground for wireless broadband, the results of which could be used to help justify the buildout of more public-safety-grade high-speed networks. For volunteer fire departments, a free broadband network may be the only kind they can afford.

Some public-safety officials likely will scoff at the notion of using a free network that doesn’t provide them with priority access and is not hardened. On the surface, this position is justifiable—indeed, you typically get what you pay for—but the notion of using the network shouldn’t be dismissed entirely by first-responder entities.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, remember that it wasn’t the hardened public-safety network that provided much-needed communications for New Orleans officials. Instead, it was a Wi-Fi network that somehow survived the storm to remain functional. It may have been a fluky circumstance, but flukes tend to happen during an emergency.

The bottom line is that, the more communication networks we have, the more likely one of them will still be working when a disaster strikes in a manner that no one envisioned previously. By no means should a free wireless broadband network be considered a replacement for one designed for public safety at 700 MHz, but having access to an additional broadband source could prove beneficial to the first-responder community.

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