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.”


Data stolen from HealthCare.gov includes partial SSNs and immigration status

Around 75,000 users have had their user data stolen from government site healthcare.gov, including information on their immigration status, whether they were pregnant, and partial social security numbers.

Here’s how to install Windows on a Chromebook

If you want to push the functionality of your new Chromebook to another level, and Linux isn't really your deal, you can try installing Windows on a Chromebook. Here's how to do so, just in case you're looking to nab some Windows-only…

Samsung Galaxy S10 could nix the notch in favor of a "punch hole" cutout

While we still may be months away from an announcement, there's no doubt about it: Samsung is working hard on its successor to the Galaxy S9. Here's everything we know about the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S10.
Movies & TV

Winter coming in spring? HBO reveals 'Game of Thrones' season 8 premiere date

With the eighth and final season looming, Game of Thrones fever has officially become a pandemic. Our list of all the relevant news and rumors will help make the wait more bearable, if you don't mind spoilers.

Bigger than Black Friday: Don’t miss the best Single’s Day deals

Thanks to AliExpress, Single's Day – the world's largest retail day – is no longer a foreign affair. If you're ready to do some early holiday shopping or want to score some discounts ahead of Black Friday, we've rounded up some of the…

Make a GIF of your favorite YouTube video with these great tools

Making a GIF from a YouTube video is easier today than it's ever been, but choosing the right tool for the job isn't always so simple. In this guide, we'll teach you how to make a GIF from a YouTube video with our two favorite online tools.

Google honors Veterans Day by highlighting military service stories

For Veterans Day, Google is honoring the heroes that served the country with a new Google Doodle that highlights the stories of five veterans from the five different branches of the military.

From beautiful to downright weird, check out these great dual monitor wallpapers

Multitasking with two monitors doesn't necessarily mean you need to split your screens with two separate wallpapers. From beautiful to downright weird, here are our top sites for finding the best dual monitor wallpapers for you.

How to change your Gmail password in just a few quick steps

Regularly updating your passwords is a good way to stay secure online, but each site and service has their own way of doing it. Here's a quick guide on how to change your Gmail password in a few short steps.

Need a free alternative to Adobe Illustrator? Here are our favorites

Photoshop and other commercial tools can be expensive, but drawing software doesn't need to be. This list of the best free drawing software is just as powerful as some of the more expensive offerings.

Edit, sign, append, and save with 12 of the best PDF editors

There are plenty of PDF editors to be had online, and though the selection is robust, finding a solid solution with the tools you need can be tough. Here, we've rounded up best PDF editors, so you can edit no matter your budget or OS.
Emerging Tech

Alibaba’s Singles’ Day sale smashes online shopping records

The annual online shopping frenzy that is Singles' Day this year raked in $30.8 billion, up from $25 billion last time around. The Alibaba-organized event generates more in sales than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

Apple to boost its Amazon presence with listings for iPhones, iPads, and more

Apple is about to start offering more of its kit on Amazon. The tech giant currently only has very limited listings on the shopping site, but the deal will see the arrival of the latest iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, and more.

If you've lost a software key, these handy tools can find it for you

Missing product keys getting you down? We've chosen some of the best software license and product key finders in existence, so you can locate and document your precious keys on your Windows or MacOS machine.