FCC's 'free' WiFi proposal generates buzz

A front page Washington Post story on Monday drew widespread attention to a Federal Communications Commission proposal to create super-powerful WiFi networks.

The Post explained that the government wants to create WiFi networks "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 all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and in many rural areas," the Post wrote.

But the dream of free high-speed Internet service for all is unlikely to be realized any time soon.

The FCC plan described in the Post story is not new. Last September, the Commission voted to move forward with a plan to encourage TV stations to sell off their spectrum—the frequencies that carry all wireless signals. Congress authorized the plan as part of a payroll tax cut extension one year ago.

The rights to most of that TV spectrum will be auctioned to cellphone service providers, which have struggled to accumulate enough airwaves to meet their customers' growing appetite for streaming videos and downloading apps. 

But a portion of the spectrum will be set aside for unlicensed use. Unlicensed spectrum, which can be used by any company for free, powers technologies such as garage door openers, remote controls and, most importantly, WiFi routers.

The FCC set aside some of the "white spaces" in between TV channels for unlicensed use in 2010, and the current proposal would dramatically expand that effort.

TV stations' frequencies are especially powerful, meaning that future WiFi networks could penetrate concrete walls and travel for miles.

Theoretically, a city could set-up a large WiFi network in an urban center, giving residents and visitors wireless Internet access for free.

But someone would still have to pay for the Internet service, whether it's a city, state or private organization. The FCC is not proposing to build a free nationwide WiFi network.

The Post acknowledged that the public networks would not be as robust as the ones offered by the cellphone carriers, which have much more spectrum at their disposal. Congestion and slow speeds could discourage many people from abandoning their cellphone contracts or home Internet service all together. 

“The FCC’s incentive auction proposal, launched in September of last year, would unleash substantial spectrum for licensed uses like 4G LTE. It would also free up unlicensed spectrum for uses including, but not limited to, next generation Wi-Fi," FCC spokesman Neil Grace explained in an email. "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.”

The Washington Post wrote that the wireless industry has launched a "fierce lobbying effort to persuade lawmakers to reconsider the idea." 

When Congress was drafting the spectrum auction legislation, AT&T and other industry groups lobbied lawmakers to restrict the FCC's ability to set aside spectrum for unlicensed use. They argued that the FCC should auction as much spectrum as possible, maximizing the government's revenue.

Meanwhile Google, Microsoft and other technology giants argued that additional unlicensed spectrum could allow for exciting new innovations and economic growth.

The final legislation authorized the FCC to designate the guard bands in between TV frequencies and cellphone frequencies for unlicensed use.

In a recent filing with the FCC, CTIA, the wireless industry's lobbying group, wrote that "unlicensed services have played an important role in the provision of wireless broadband service."

The group encouraged the FCC to auction as much spectrum as possible, but said it agreed that unlicensed spectrum should be allowed in the guard bands.

"Enabling unlicensed operation in guard bands will help to make productive use of otherwise unused spectrum," the group wrote.