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State of the Web: Why the FCC’s ‘free super Wi-Fi’ plan is probably too good to be true

cell tower [Shutterstock noolwlee]

On Monday, the Washington Post generated some chainsaw-level buzz with a report stating that the Federal Communications Commission has plans to rollout free “super Wi-Fi” across the U.S. that could be “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.” Sounds good, right? Right – sadly, it’s probably too good to be true. Here’s why.

What is super Wi-Fi?

The name “super Wi-Fi” is really just a marketing term for one type of signal the could be transmitted over what’s known as “white space spectrum.” White space is the unused portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that exists between television channels – the channels that don’t carry “Jeopardy!” or any other shows.

The benefits of a white space network are potentially vast. A white-space signal is particularly strong, which allows it to travel long distances and penetrate buildings more easily than, say, standard Wi-Fi. This could potentially allow the roughly 100 million Americans who currently lack access to broadband Internet to get online, according to the FCC.

Furthermore, the free availability of the white-space spectrum would potentially open the path to technological innovations that are currently hampered by the high cost of licensing spectrum. This is based on what happened after the FCC opened up other portions of the spectrum in 1985, which led to things like garage-door openers and baby monitors.

What’s the FCC’s plan?

The FCC wants to make a portion of the white space spectrum free to use by whomever decides to use it. That could be a business, like AT&T or Google, or your city government. This makes white space different than other parts of the spectrum, which are licensed to specific entities. So, theoretically, a city, state, or federal government could build a network that transmits public Wi-Fi over the white space spectrum, thus providing “free” Wi-Fi to everyone. Rather than connecting to your home Wi-Fi router, you would access the Internet via a signal transmitted over a powerful TV antenna, just as you can currently access over-the-air TV channels on your television.

What’s standing the the FCC’s way?

A lot. First off, a number of powerful entities really don’t want this to happen. AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, and chip makers Qualcomm and Intel have all argued that the FCC should instead try to sell this spectrum to businesses. Cisco argues that use of the white space could interfere with other wireless signals. And the National Broadcasters Association has been fighting efforts to free up the white space since 2004, citing concerns that it would muddle our television signals.

What this means is that a vast amount of lobbying money is being used to convince lawmakers in Washington to block the FCC’s plan, which must be approved by Congress through the passage of legislation. And it doesn’t help that the sale of the unused white space spectrum could result in billions of dollars being poured into the federal government’s coffers.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t powerful forces on the other side. In the private sector, the primary supporters of the FCC’s plan are Google and Microsoft, who are part of a lobbying group known as the Wireless Innovation Alliance (WIA), which also includes the New America Foundation, Public Knowledge, Dell, and others. But for almost the last decade, the FCC’s camp has failed to make much headway.

What else is stopping me from getting free super Wi-Fi?

Even if the FCC’s plan goes through, and the unused white-space spectrum becomes available, that doesn’t mean we would instantly have free super Wi-Fi. Why? Because some entity would have to build that network, and that takes a lot of time, and a lot of money.

As Paul Waldman notes in The American Prospect, it’s entirely possible that a company like Google would choose to build out a free super Wi-Fi network, which would allow it to serve advertisements to even more people. But at the moment, that’s just speculation, and remains a big “if.”

In addition to the fact that no super Wi-Fi network exists, there’s no guarantee that such a network would be any good. If you’ve ever tried to use standard Wi-Fi at an event with a large amount of people, you know how slow and unreliable the service can become. Now imagine that that network is serving your entire city, and you can understand just how congested free public Wi-Fi would be, especially in densely populated areas.

So what am I to take away from all this?

The key thing to understand is, universal, free public super Wi-Fi is not going to become a reality anytime soon, if ever. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon hope. As supporters of the FCC’s plan explain, the availability of a nationwide super Wi-Fi network would thrust us further into the Internet age, beyond the GIF-saturated Web we know, and into a new realm of technological advancement. It would mean the creation of new gadgets, and the flourishing of Internet-connected devices. It would mean that the third of the U.S. population that is currently without broadband would have it. And, yes, it could even mean being able to get Internet access for free.

There are currently no legislative efforts on the table to push this plan forward. But when there is, contact your representatives in Congress and tell them, “Let the white space be free.”

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