Internet access is an essential need on par with education access, but at what point do regulators recognize that? When will government officials acknowledge that widespread, guaranteed access is essential to fostering growth in the country? Somewhat surprisingly, that time is now, as the FCC is now calling for nationwide free wi-fi networks to be opened up to the public.
The FCC proposes buying back spectrum from TV stations that would allow for what the Washington Post is dubbing "super wi-fi," as the commission wants to cover the country with wide-ranging, highly-penetrative networks. Essentially, you can imagine the proposal as covering a majority of the country with open-access data networks, similar to cell networks now, that your car, tablet, or even phone could connect to. That means no one is ever disconnected, and some folks–especially light users and the poor–could likely ditch regular Internet and cell plans altogether.
As you might expect, telecom providers, as well as equipment manufacturers and even firms heavily invested in the cell phone market, like Intel, aren't interested in shaking up the current model that's securely lucrative. From the Post:
Cisco and other telecommunications equipment firms told the FCC that it needs to test the airwaves more for potential interference.
“Cisco strongly urges the commission to firmly retreat from the notion that it can predict, or should predict . . . how the unlicensed guard bands might be used,” the networking giant wrote.
Supporters of the free-WiFi plan say telecom equipment firms have long enjoyed lucrative relationships with cellular carriers and may not want to disrupt that model. [...]
“We want our policy to be more end-user-centric and not carrier-centric. That’s where there is a difference in opinion” with carriers and their partners, said a senior FCC official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the proposal is still being considered by the five-member panel.
Google and Microsoft both support the proposal, largely because more internet access means more potential users. And, as Google and Microsoft have argued, opening up the wireless market to all will help spur a massive boom in innovation. Self-driving cars are nearly here, as we saw at CES, and one of the major things still holding them back is connectivity; it's not hard to teach a car to drive itself down the road, but it takes serious networking capability to teach it to drive nicely with others. Blanketing the country in wi-fi that doesn't require numerous licensing deals could allow that.
That aside, the potential benefits to citizens are immense, as discussed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in its campaign to unlock wi-fi from the user side. And beyond what the EFF is doing, the FCC could make huge strides towards closing the immense rural internet gap. Really, the FCC's plan, which would be the first of its kind in the world, would be a massive leap forward in the Internet age, where something that's a basic requirement for anyone to succeed these days is finally acknowledged as such.
Update: In an email, a FCC spokesperson clarified that the proposal in question was initially introduced as part of an incentive auction program that has the potential to open up parts of the spectrum owned by TV stations. Only if those bands open up will a nationwide network be possible, which requires the owners of those bands to sell them back to the FCC.
“The FCC’s incentive auction proposal, launched in September of last year, would unleash substantial spectrum for licensed uses like 4G LTE," wrote the spokesperson. "It would also free up unlicensed spectrum for uses including, but not limited to, next generation Wi-Fi. As the demand for mobile broadband continues to grow rapidly, we need to free up significant amounts of spectrum for commercial use, and both licensed and unlicensed spectrum must be part of the solution.”
Top image: Flickr/rainbreaw
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