Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Is Free Public WiFi Possible?

Wireless access in a NYC public park. Photo: Timothy Karr
The noisy response to a front-page Washington Post story about an alleged government plan to create free public WiFi networks indicates public enthusiasm for the cheaper Internet access in America.

If only it were so simple.

Americans pay far too much for far too little Internet access by comparison to rates in other developed countries. So it's little surprise that so many would welcome the idea of ubiquitous and affordable wireless Internet access.

But the story drew a different response from insiders and tech reporters who knew that the creation of a "super WiFi" network described in the story is far from reality.

While the Post's Cecilia Kang has issued a clarification in response to the uproar, the question remains: Is free public WiFi even possible?

For years the FCC has sought ways to better use spectrum. Lately that means reorganizing a broad swath of the airwaves that was set aside for television broadcasting. By 2008, the FCC had already decided to free some of the airwaves between TV signals, often referred to as "white spaces," for wireless Internet access. But in its 2010 National Broadband Plan, the FCC called for the creation of a nationwide band on which a public WiFi network could exist.

The agency is now weighing how much of these valuable airwaves it should auction to the highest bidders while reserving some of them for open and unlicensed use.

The goal is to strike a balance between spectrum that is managed privately by a single entity (licensed) and that which is open for experimentation and use by many players (unlicensed). The agency's track record here is not good, and the most powerful wireless companies will always lobby for more exclusive control of the airwaves.

The level has become so tilted towards the carriers that the FCC now has to piece together scraps to find enough unlicensed spectrum to restore any semblance of balance.

We have a long way to go to get public WiFi for all, but it's vital that we get to work right now. To promote affordable WiFi options, the FCC has to follow through and increase the amount of spectrum that is available for open networks. And we're not just talking about any spectrum -- we need access to the lower-frequency bands that can transmit a longer range broadband signal able to penetrate walls and other structures.

Still, some at the FCC and in Congress share the carriers' short-sighted view that auctioning off spectrum for private single use is always preferable to opening even a portion of it to everyone.

The auctions now under consideration may bring in less than $20 billion, according to realistic estimates. It is difficult to gauge the full economic advantage and benefits generated by unlicensed use, but researchers at the University of Colorado place the value of economic activity in such spectrum at $50 billion per year. And those were conservative estimates.

Moreover, the unlicensed spectrum we do have has ushered in an explosion of innovation. "More [open] spectrum will allow for more efficient wireless networks that would improve the quality of VOIP and video conferencing systems, as well as enable cool new gadgets that do things we haven't even thought of yet," write Adi Kamdar and Peter Eckersley of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Open spectrum is the infrastructure of our economic future. But even were this spectrum to become available today, we'd still need time for router and mobile phone manufacturers to bring to market devices that could make best use of the network.

Cities and towns wanting to create municipal networks would have to approve the funding to build the infrastructure to connect their communities -- a process that's often marred by delays, bureaucracy and worse: 19 states have passed industry-backed laws that make it difficult if not impossible for cities to consider such an important move.

We can, and must, take action today to bring about an age of affordable, ubiquitous WiFi. Opening up a larger slice of high-quality spectrum for open networks is a must, but it's just a first step.

The FCC simply needs to face down the lobbyists and do right by the rest of us. If the agency is serious about affordable public WiFi, it must make unlicensed use a bigger priority.

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