National Free WiFi Too Impractical to Ever Come to Your Community

NEWS ANALYSIS: The much ballyhooed stories about a free national WiFi network using 5GHz spectrum and white space ignore technical reality to create confusion and raise false hopes.

There's been an astonishing amount of excitement stemming from an article in The Washington Post about an FCC plan that would ostensibly provide free, high-powered WiFi to every community in the United States.

As much as I love The Washington Post and as much as I respect Cecelia Kang, who wrote the story, the fact is, it's not true. The FCC proposal isn't going to bring free WiFi to communities nationwide, it's not going to challenge carriers, and as proposed, it's not going to work the way the hype seems to describe.

Here's what’s happening. The FCC has made two proposals that aren't actually related. One proposal is to expand the current 5GHz WiFi spectrum, something already reported in eWEEK back in mid-January. This proposal probably will happen eventually, but not until some government and commercial users are relocated to different parts of the spectrum, and not until some services that can't be moved are protected.

The other part of the hype involves the now long-of-tooth "white space" proposal that's been making the rounds since the beginning of digital television back in the previous millennium. The white spaces in question are what are called "guard bands" that were placed between analog television channels to keep television signals on adjacent channels from interfering with each other.

Guard bands were necessary back in the days of analog television because broadcasters transmitted a portion of the signal (the picture) using what's called amplitude modulation (similar to what your car radio uses when you're listening to AM radio), which is subject to interference.

The audio portion of an analog television signal uses FM. Now that all television broadcasts, except some low-power community stations, have moved to digital transmission and current televisions are built with significantly more robust technology that is subject to less interference, those guard bands are no longer really necessary.

If you look at the chart of television frequencies, you'll notice that each channel starts where the lower channel stops, but in reality, there's a sliver of open frequencies, which are the guard bands, and that's what now forms the white spaces.

So what you have is a clear frequency between television channels that isn't being used and isn't necessary. A number of proponents have suggested that these open frequencies could be used for mobile data. Of course, other proponents have suggested additional uses as well, such as fixed wireless data. But regardless of whether this is used for mobile, fixed or a mixture of data types, it's not WiFi. And chances are it won't be free.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...