Free, broadband Internet service could become available across the country if the government okays a proposal to open up unused public airwaves to bidders.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is set to vote Dec. 18 on whether to auction off the so-called AWS-3 spectrum, an unused chunk of airwaves. The winner would have to agree to use at least 25 percent of the spectrum to build a free, national broadband network (one free of porn, too, for anyone except for "adults" who click online agreements claiming to be 18 or older), but could charge a fee for faster service on the remainder. The network would reach 95 percent of the U.S. population, especially those in rural areas where broadband is less accessible, according to FCC spokesperson Rob Kenny.

The plan was originally floated two years ago by Menlo Park, Calif., wireless startup M2Z Networks. A version of the proposal is backed by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who has come under fire for the country's declining ranking in broadband availability compared with other nations, the Washington Post notes. (Critics blame that on a lack of competition in the U.S. wireless industry.) Kenny says the free network would provide basic broadband, which runs at about the same speed as DSL.

"This initiative brings with it the promise of free basic broadband service to hundreds of thousands of Americans who currently have limited or no access to the high-speed Internet," Martin told the Post. "It is important that we find new and creative ways to make broadband services more accessible, reliable and robust throughout our nation and this initiative will help us meet that goal."

T-Mobile has spoken out against the plan, as has the industry's Wireless Association, arguing that use of the spectrum would interfere with cell phone service and is a bad business model. Some free-speech advocates dislike its no-porn provision.

Broadband allows users to send and receive video and other large files. As tech editor Larry Greenemeier notes, "TV networks can't offer their shows to people via the Web, YouTube is much less popular because the video doesn't stream evenly, video conferencing is still pretty useless, and real-time chat/Twitter/etc. isn't so real-time" when it's not carried over a braodband network.

Image by iStockphoto/René Mansi