Why the Feds Should Promote Wi-Fi Everywhere

The FCC isn’t really creating a free nationwide wireless network. But it might happen anyway.

U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Monday, the Washington Post’s 1.4 million Twitter followers woke up to this good news tweet: “Free WiFi Everywhere? That’s the Plan.”

The teaser referred to the Post’s Page 1 story reporting that the Federal Communications Commission is proposing “to create super Wi-Fi networks across the nation so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month.”

If only this was true! Unfortunately, as Slate’s Matt Yglesias reported soon after, there is no plan for a free government super Wi-Fi network. What sounded like a plan to create free public Wi-Fi networks is in fact a less ambitious but still vital proposal to reallocate a larger share of the best public airwaves (spectrum) for free shared use without the need for a license. That’s exactly how Wi-Fi operates today—on “unlicensed” bands of spectrum that are equally open to everyone.

There is certainly a strong case to be made that 21st-century public infrastructure should include a minimum level of broadband connectivity almost everywhere. By leveraging existing public assets—both unlicensed spectrum and the spider web of federal, state, and local fiber optic backhaul that crisscrosses the nation—it would be relatively inexpensive to blanket most areas with a basic level of wireless connectivity.

In reality, though, the FCC is not proposing to subsidize the construction of networks. Instead, the agency wants to make enough free and high-quality unlicensed spectrum available that a far wider range of private companies, local governments, and individuals will find it economical to either offer or consume more broadband Internet services.

Mobile carriers like AT&T typically purchase licenses granting exclusive use of spectrum at auctions, which enables them to offer predictable quality of service. For example, AT&T and Verizon paid $16 billion at the first auction of TV band spectrum in 2008, acquiring nearly 80 percent of the license areas auctioned. Unlicensed, in contrast, is used free of charge but shared by an unpredictable number of other devices and networks, none of which have interference protection from the rest. And yet, as most Wi-Fi users will attest, it works remarkably well at most times and places.

There are already clear signs in the United States and abroad that if enough of this public spectrum resource is made freely available for unlicensed use, the private sector will step up and make wireless connectivity ubiquitous and affordable, at least in urban and suburban areas. Freeing up more unlicensed spectrum holds out the promise of solving the so-called “spectrum crisis” created by exploding consumer demand for video and other high-bandwidth apps on mobile devices, while simultaneously bringing competition and innovation to a cellular market that has been rapidly trending toward a two-carrier duopoly dominated by AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

A case in point is BT Wi-Fi, a massive collection of Wi-Fi hotspots created by British Telecom, the U.K.’s leading wireline telco. Formerly called OpenZone, BT has turned 4.5 million of its wired broadband customers into open hotspots of wireless connectivity. They did this by installing Wi-Fi routers that are also transmitting broadband connections open to any other BT customer—or anyone purchasing a day pass. Where BT’s customers are located close enough together, BT Wi-Fi creates a cloud of connectivity that allows mobile device users to bypass their wireless carrier (which, like U.S. carriers, may be metering and gouging consumers for bandwidth consumption).

BT customers also have access to another 3 million hotspots across Europe, since they are part of a larger consortium organized by FON, the Spanish telecom provider that pioneered the concept.

This wave is washing up on our shores now—and it’s already reconfiguring the politics of spectrum access, as well as the future architecture of broadband networks. Although unlicensed spectrum is typically associated with home and coffee shop Wi-Fi, as well as with embattled community networks promoted by nonprofits and some municipalities, increasingly the leading broadband carriers are waking up to the cost-effectiveness of sharing public spectrum.

Five years ago, the most powerful opponents of unlicensed spectrum were AT&T and Verizon. Today, AT&T operates more than 30,000 Wi-Fi hotspots—and dozens of “hot zones” in places like Times Square and Wrigley Field—to relieve congestion that iPhones, iPads, and other mobile devices create on its pricey and limited licensed spectrum. Verizon, meanwhile, has formed a partnership with a consortium of the largest cable companies, which have rapidly built out more than 50,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to promote “TV Everywhere” for their wireline subscribers. As a result, the cable companies have recently become advocates for more unlicensed spectrum.

An increasing majority of data consumed on mobile devices is from video—and most video is consumed indoors or otherwise within Wi-Fi range of the wired network. So like BT, the unlicensed wireless offerings of Big Cable (Comcast, Cablevision, and Time Warner Cable) are potentially very disruptive. As these efforts proliferate and consumers wise up, the recent efforts of AT&T and Verizon to impose data caps and charge wireless users premium prices for streaming video and other high-bandwidth apps could be thwarted.

Another indicator of the importance of more prime spectrum for unlicensed access is the steady growth of the roughly 2,000 mom-and-pop wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) that use unlicensed to beam broadband to as many as 1 million homes and small businesses in small towns and rural areas. WISPs have placed hundreds of preorders for wireless gear that operates on the vacant TV channels that the FCC began opening for unlicensed use last year. Because TV-band spectrum can cover very large areas, bend around hills, and penetrate trees and buildings far better than today’s Wi-Fi spectrum (which is located in higher frequencies), the WISPs rightly argue that more and better unlicensed is the key to universal and affordable broadband service in rural America.

A third critical market increasingly dominated by unlicensed connectivity is machine-to-machine communications—the emerging “Internet of Things.” Energy and environmental monitoring, mobile health, smart-grid networks, and intelligent transportation are just the beginning of a trend toward embedding wireless connectivity into almost every system in every sector.

A study just published by Harvard Law professor Yochai Benkler documents the widespread market adoption of unlicensed wireless strategies, which make up more than 80 percent of wireless health care and smart-grid devices. In a report last July recommending opportunistic sharing of all underutilized federal spectrum bands (such as lightly-used military radar bands), the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology noted that by 2020 “the connected device market is expected to be dominated not by mobile phones … but by machine-to-machine (M2M) devices—as many as 50 billion of them by some estimates.”

All this raises the stakes as the FCC decides how much of the very limited supply of prime spectrum will be auctioned for exclusively licensed use and how much will be open for unlicensed use. As the Post reporter acknowledged in a clarification yesterday, the “super Wi-Fi” discussed in her story actually refers to the TV channels that will be freed up as the FCC reorganizes the broadcast band. Currently only one in six TV channels is in use by full-power stations in the average media market—and only 10 percent to 12 percent of households rely on over-the-air signals. (The rest subscribe to cable, satellite, or telco TV like FIOS.)

Oregon’s Greg Walden, a former broadcaster who chairs the Commerce Committee’s telecom subcommittee, and a few other leading House Republicans want to auction as much TV spectrum as possible—and use some of that revenue to help fund a wireless network for public safety agencies. Other prominent Republicans, such as Rep. Darrell Issa of California, actively support unlicensed spectrum in the TV bands as deregulatory and a sandbox for innovation. Opponents, however, deride it as “free spectrum for Google.” The fact that this makes even less sense than saying the interstate highway system is “free roads for UPS” doesn’t seem to pierce their ideological blinders.

So far FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is standing up to conservative pressure for short-term revenue. He wants to ensure a substantial amount of unlicensed spectrum in every market—and hence markets of national scope and scale for “Super Wi-Fi” chips, devices, and services. In addition, the FCC recently proposed opening two much larger swaths of higher-frequency spectrum for unlicensed use that are currently reserved for mostly military use.

If all of the commission’s proposals are adopted—and shared public spectrum is plentiful—the good news about widespread and low-cost public Wi-Fi networks reported by the Post this week may actually become reality. Let’s hope.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.