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Nationwide WiFi?

This sounds like a big deal.

The federal government wants to create super Wi-Fi networks across the nation, so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month.

The proposal from the Federal Communications Commission has rattled the $178 billion wireless industry, which has launched a fierce lobbying effort to persuade policymakers to reconsider the idea, analysts say. That has been countered by an equally intense campaign from Google, Microsoft and other tech giants who say a free-for-all Wi-Fi service would spark an explosion of innovations and devices that would benefit most Americans, especially the poor.

The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing Wi-Fi networks that have become common in households. They could penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees. If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and many rural areas.

The new Wi-Fi networks would also have much farther reach, allowing for a driverless car to communicate to another vehicle a mile away or a patient’s heart monitor to connect to a hospital on the other side of town.

If approved by the FCC, the free networks would still take several years to set up. And, with no one actively managing them, connections could easily become jammed in major cities. But public Wi-Fi could allow many consumers to make free calls from their mobile phones via the Internet. The frugal-minded could even use the service in their homes, allowing them to cut off expensive Internet bills.

Of course, a few years ago some of us thought that free WiFi provided by cities would be a big deal, and we all know how that went. As it happens, the original Washington Post story isn’t quite about that.

Unfortunately, as Slate’s Matt Yglesias reported soon after, there is no plan for a free government super Wi-Fi network. What sounded like a plan to create free public Wi-Fi networks is in fact a less ambitious but still vital proposal to reallocate a larger share of the best public airwaves (spectrum) for free shared use without the need for a license. That’s exactly how Wi-Fi operates today—on “unlicensed” bands of spectrum that are equally open to everyone.

There is certainly a strong case to be made that 21st-century public infrastructure should include a minimum level of broadband connectivity almost everywhere. By leveraging existing public assets—both unlicensed spectrum and the spider web of federal, state, and local fiber optic backhaul that crisscrosses the nation—it would be relatively inexpensive to blanket most areas with a basic level of wireless connectivity.

In reality, though, the FCC is not proposing to subsidize the construction of networks. Instead, the agency wants to make enough free and high-quality unlicensed spectrum available that a far wider range of private companies, local governments, and individuals will find it economical to either offer or consume more broadband Internet services.

Oh, well. Still, having lived through the municipal WiFI boom and bust, I was hoping this might be a second chance to get that right. It still could be, but not in the way I envisioned when I read that first story. Kevin Drum has more.

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2 Comments

  1. Ross says:

    Why does everyone think that this sort of thing would be free? It won’t, it will be paid for by tax dollars that are in short supply. Where is that money going to come from? Whose pockets will be picked to pay for the “free” service?

  2. Tom Poe says:

    Charles: Came across this post with Google search for municipal wifi. Our free municipal wifi networks are using frequencies that we own, managed by the FCC. They’re weak, as you mentioned. The FCC is now deciding to enhance our access to the frequencies that we own, and allow our municipal wifi efforts to utilize these additional frequencies that we own to improve the municipal wifi networks that we can access. Interestingly, the municipal networks represent local broadband infrastructure that the public can access, as well as the cities and corporate entities can access. Now, suppose we will soon be able to set up local broadband infrastructure that connects easily with neighboring communities within range, rather than what we now have, local broadband infrastructures that have extremely short range. Yes, we can network entire states, states with neighboring states, national networks. No, we don’t need government help, but rather can have corporate entities actually bidding for access to our local broadband infrastructure. It’s this logic that has had corporate interests suing cities and communities and states that won’t legislate such efforts as illegal.

    First things first. Let’s convince the FCC that it has to return these frequencies to their owners. We don’t need them to manage these frequencies that we own. Let’s demand what belongs to us, so we can build our own super wifi networks.

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