WiFi for all

The Internet could eventually be as ubiquitous as the air we breathe if the Federal Communications Commission moves forward with a plan to allow free access to an unused portion of the broadcast spectrum. The WiFi networks that would flourish on that bandwidth could powerfully transform our lives and spur massive innovation in the economy — if the idea can get past the multi-billion dollar interests standing in its way.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is spearheading the public WiFi effort on the grounds that it could lead to whole new industries of products and services, but the idea would also serve the agency's mission to reduce the digital divide by expanding the availability of high-speed Internet access and reducing its cost. Such a system would likely not be free — somebody would still need to invest in the equipment to make the network possible — and it would likely have substantial drawbacks based on the number of people using a finite amount of bandwidth. But it would make wide-scale wireless networks technologically and economically feasible. As part of a balanced plan for reallocating part of the public airwaves, it makes sense.


The effort has powerful backing from tech companies like Google and Microsoft. They argue in a brief to the FCC that more public WiFi access will spur the use of "millions of devices that will compose the coming Internet of things" — and, in turn, provide new markets for their products and services. On the other side, dominant telecommunications companies like AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Intel and Qualcomm have already begun a lobbying process to oppose the FCC's plans, arguing instead that the unused portion of the spectrum should be auctioned to private companies. And no wonder; wireless communications is a nearly $180 billion a year industry, and providing a chunk of the spectrum to the public for free could lower the barriers of entry for potential competitors.

What the FCC is talking about, though, would not completely upend the current wireless or broadband Internet markets. The proposal to repurpose some of the spectrum now allocated to broadcast television includes auctioning most of the airwaves for wireless companies while leaving a relatively small portion free for public use. The FCC has done this before — parts of the spectrum used by cordless phones, laptop computers and tablets and other devices have been made available for free, dating back as far as 1985. What is different is that the spectrum now at issue would be at lower frequency, which makes it more useful and better able to penetrate walls and other obstacles.


The companies who oppose the FCC's plan argue that the agency's mission to serve the public interest would best be achieved through the revenues from an auction of the airwaves. The last such auction, in 2008, generated nearly $20 billion for the government. That's a substantial amount of money, to be sure, but the relatively small portion of the spectrum that the commission now proposes to leave open to unlicensed use would be worth only a fraction of that — a pittance compared to the economic activity that could be generated through the creation of new products and services to take advantage of the unlicensed spectrum.

Moreover, it is also in the public interest for the government to help provide access to information. Where libraries once sufficed for this task, it is clear today that much of the information we now depend on rests in the digital world alone. The Internet has quickly moved from a luxury to an essential tool for modern living. Immediate access to everything from information about the government to medical advice is often taken for granted by the Internet-using population, but many fail to consider just how far from universal access to it now is. In 2010 the FCC looked at who has wired broadband access in their homes — even with smartphones, it is still the predominant and most important means of connection — and found that 100 million Americans don't have it, although there was 95 percent availability, highlighting the barriers to access many face.

How much increased access the FCC's proposed sliver of unlicensed spectrum would provide remains to be seen, but it would likely provide opportunities for wireless Internet service providers to multiply in hard-to-serve rural areas, and it would likely encourage more free WiFi networks in cities, like the one Google has set up in New York's Chelsea neighborhood. It could also pave the way for a whole new generation of devices that "talk" to one another and to their users through the Internet. That serves the public interest much more than a marginal expansion in the part of the spectrum owned by Verizon and AT&T.

We live and compete globally in the digital era, and so from an economic perspective, providing increased opportunity for American entrepreneurs to innovate is an important step in the right direction. Equally as important, providing greater access to information for all Americans, regardless of level of income, holds vital moral and economic implications for our country's future.