The FCC Pushes Free Wi-Fi for All

by Dan Holden | February 5, 2013

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is pushing to build a comprehensive wireless grid that would cover entire cities nationwide, enabling free access to both the Internet and calling services.

As conceived by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, the proposal for a free super Wi-Fi network utilizes un-accessed television bandwidth to bypass traditional carrier networks. It is being hailed by tech companies, including Google, Intel and Microsoft, who would act essentially as content aggregators and Internet providers to such a system.

But the concept of a free Wi-Fi super network is a clear line drawn in the sand for traditional carrier companies, who satellite, telephone and cable infrastructure acts as a content gatekeeper, siphoning off profits and power. In response, the carrier companies are lobbying fiercely to persuade policymakers to change their minds.

But the big tech companies are equally anxious to see the super network deployed, arguing that a free Wi-Fi infrastructure could spark an explosion of innovations and devices that would benefit Americans without depleting their precious financial resources.

The FCC figures it can push this offer because its proposal includes the use of a new set of airwaves not previously accessible to the wireless industry.  In the past, wireless carriers have been relegated to “last mile” status because the bandwidth of their devices allowed only short-distance wireless communications. The FCC proposal, first introduced last fall, includes access to airwaves between the narrower analog television broadcast channels, allowing wireless transmissions to travel much farther and easily penetrate solid surfaces.

If implemented, this would allow wireless networks to deliver free data and video transmission services, all but eliminating all the expensive infrastructure costs that traditional carriers must cover. The network could also easily connect with mobile devices in cars and other vehicles, reducing the need for 3G or 4G carrier networks for smart phones and smart cars.

Still, the major wireless carriers already own far more spectrum than what is being proposed for public WiFi, so their networks will continue to be significantly more robust. Nevertheless, the free infrastructure could serve as a “public broadcasting system” for all, with specific emphasis on lower income Americans.

If approved by the FCC, the free networks would still take several years to set up and manage, although some tech companies have already started experiments in the real world, including certain neighborhoods of Manhattan and Silicon Valley.

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