The Federal Communications Commission is proposing the creation of free, powerful Wi-Fi networks that could dramatically change wireless access to the Internet in the U.S. The plan would be the first of its kind for any country.
The Plplan would require TV stations in local markets to sell a portion of their airwaves to the federal government, which would then make them available as public Wi-Fi networks. No timeline has been indicated.
Compared with existing Wi-Fi networks, the new ones would have greater penetration through walls and over hills, would be able to travel much further, and would make Wi-Fi available throughout virtually every city and many rural areas. Industry observers have also suggested that the Wi-Fi networks could potentially be as fast, or faster, than LTE.
'Vibrantly Free Market Approach'
With the higher penetration and longer reach, the new Wi-Fi networks could engender a wide array of new services in medicine, education or transportation. It could also reduce communications costs for schools, hospitals and other public institutions, as well as for businesses and home users.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement that "freeing up unlicensed spectrum is a vibrantly free market approach that offers low barriers to entry to innovators developing the technologies of the future, and benefits consumers."
The networks could also create major competition to phone calling through the private carriers, since voice-over-Internet traffic would be more widely available -- and would be free. The new networks could also replace hard-wired or wireless Internet connections in many areas for businesses and consumers, or provide high-speed connections where none exist.
It is for these reasons that the proposal is raising strong objections from the existing carriers and cable operators. AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, among others, have written to the FCC that it should sell the airwaves to private operators. But some technology companies, such as Google and Microsoft, have expressed support for the FCC's proposal.
'Disincentive to Invest'
Intel has told news media that, if that spectrum was unlicensed, "there would be disincentive to invest in expensive networking equipment and provide users with optimal quality of service." Cisco has said that the FCC should make sure that the bandwidth in question would not interfere with existing services.
The FCC has said there is little indication that those frequencies would cause technical interference. An FCC official told The Washington Post that the agency wants "our policy to be more end-user-centric and not carrier-centric."
Those private companies would still possess much more bandwidth than the free public Wi-Fi networks, and, since there is no plan for traffic on the Wi-Fi networks to be managed, the private networks could remain the choice for customers who wanted guaranteed high-speed transmissions.
The proposed public Wi-Fi networks are an extension of the "white spaces" proposal from the FCC in 2011, which sought to use leftover spectrum from the transition to digital TV broadcasting. If the FCC sold the bandwidth to private companies instead of making it available for public use, the government would receive an estimated $15 billion.