Will 5G Kill Free WiFi?

Intel's techno-utopian vision of a single unified meta-internet has a dark side.

Michael Byrne

Michael Byrne

Image: Roland Tanglao/Flickr

At the Intel Developer Forum 2015 last week, the hardware overlord took the opportunity to clarify its vision of the 5G future. It's not about speed, it's about integration. All wireless services will eventually (if not soon) become a seamless unified meta-network where Wi-Fi, cellular, and centimeter- and millimeter wavelength bands all join forces to offer the user "5G," which won't so much represent the "cloud" as it will the air itself, ready to nourish antennae as oxygen nourishes lungs.

"What is 5G?," asked Aicha Evans, the general manager of Intel's communications and devices group, at the start of her keynote panel. "It's not a faster modem, it's not a faster 4G modem. It's a unifier, it's a fusion of all of these technologies. The air around us. No more figuring out, Do I connect through Wi-Fi? Do I connect through 4G? Do I send it through Bluetooth? All of that is going to happen magically."

By 2020, Evans declared, some 50 billion "things" will become connected: self-driving cars, traffic lights, smart-city sensor networks, personal drones, appliances, etc. "If it computes, it must connect," she said. "Otherwise it might as well be a brick."

This is the Internet of Things, of course, and it will require networking. 5G doesn't say what networks will be used to connect them, just that we won't have to bother thinking about different networks at all. 5G technology will provide us the illusion of unity.

That illusion, however, is not free, Evans notes. It is instead 100 percent accessible, which is a peculiar distinction. In an EE Times commentary, R. Colin Johnson wonders if perhaps Intel's vision might work against the free internet, Wi-Fi in particular.

For one thing, it's important to keep in mind that Intel is making a pitch here, if indirectly. The meta-internet of everything will of course need to be physically networked, which is where Intel's base station hardware will presumably come into play. It's hard to imagine better growth potential than creating a network of 50 billion devices, and, eventually, even cyborged-out human beings. ("In my generation, or even my children's generation, even human beings will be connected," Evans said.)

So, with networks all smeared together into one great big not-free network, what happens to the networks that are currently free? The question answers itself. Freeness will be consumed along with the networks themselves. "5G-for-all presents the opportunity to kill free WiFi and instead charge users for every data packet they send or receive, no matter which of the integrated communications technologies is used," Johnson argues.

Evans herself seemed to concur, noting that free universal internet is an unlikely dream. We'll have to settle for mere network omnipresence, it seems.

It's hard to see how it could be otherwise. The idea of chip-implanted networked humans makes the idea even more ominous, adding a price-tag to what will have become a fundamental means of communication. Which sounds sort of like charging for speech itself.