FCC Plan For Free WiFi Super Highway Boosts Interest in Debate

Descriptions of a free, public WiFi network capable of penetrating concrete and spanning towns have people newly interested in an FCC agenda.

At the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show in January, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski discussed the need to free up wireless spectrum for not only mobile broadband networks but WiFi. Genachowski said that WiFi was in something of a traffic jam, and the FCC was hopeful that it could open up the 5GHz spectrum band by 35 percent.

"We're moving to free up a substantial amount of spectrum for WiFi to relieve WiFi congestion and improve WiFi speeds at conferences, airports an ultimately people's homes," Genachowski said on stage at the event, according to a report from the Denver Post.

In a Feb. 3 report, the Washington Post offered a more dramatic account of what the FCC has in mind: a super WiFi network "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 idea of a WiFi network robust enough to enable "a driverless car to communicate with another vehicle a mile away or a patient's heart monitor to connect to a hospital on the other side of town," as the Post reported, makes abundantly clear why the portioning of spectrum for WiFi purposes has pitted Google and Microsoft (which make products that benefit from an Internet connection) against AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile, among others, which of course currently sell users those connections.

The carriers' networks, however, would be far more robust than the proposed, free public WiFi network, so their business cases would hardly be undone. It's expected that the WiFi network would help to alleviate cellular networks in congested areas, and that only very casual Internet users might cancel their paid service in favor of leaning on the public WiFi.

The wireless carriers have aggressively invested in rolling out Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks to field the nation's growing demand for high-speed wireless access and are looking forward to the FCC's 2014 auctions of spectrum—the difficult-to-acquire resource that is the network's lifeblood.

The spectrum is currently used by television stations, which have said they're open to selling at the right price. Post writer Cecilia Kang, speaking on National Public Radio Feb. 5, explained why the television spectrum is so particularly desirable.

"These airwaves are really strong, in that they travel through concrete walls, over hills, around trees," said Kang, adding that they're on par with the airwaves being used for LTE deployments.

But it's some of these same airwaves that the FCC would like to put aside for WiFi use—which has, Kang wrote in the Post, "launched a fierce lobbying effort to persuade policymakers to reconsider the idea."

Genachowski told the Post in an statement, "Freeing up unlicensed spectrum is a vibrantly free-market approach that offers low barriers to entry to innovators developing the technologies of the future and benefits consumers."

The pro-WiFi Google has already experimented with offering a free, public network. It now offers WiFi around its headquarters in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood.

"Google is proud to provide free WiFi in the neighborhood we have called home for over six years," Google CIO Ben Fried said in a Jan. 8 statement. "This network will not only be a resource for the 2,000-plus residents of the Fulton Houses [public housing buildings], it will also serve the 5,000-plus student population of Chelsea as well as the hundreds of workers, retail customers and tourists who visit the neighborhood every day."