Five things to know about public WiFi


An FCC plan to broaden access to public WiFi networks around the nation generated a lot of discussion. (Spencer Platt/GETTY IMAGES)
February 5, 2013

A front-page Washington Post story Monday on a push by the Federal Communications Commission to broaden access to public WiFi networks around the nation generated a lot of discussion. Senior FCC officials say they actively support the proposal, and the idea has sparked a lot of questions from readers. Here are five things to know about the FCC’s plan:

1. The FCC won’t build or run the super WiFi networks.

The agency wants to dedicate a swath of airwaves that any company or person can tap freely to create products, such as cars that can communicate with each other over long distances or powerful WiFi networks that allow users to access the Internet across an entire town.

Cities have expressed interest in using these airwaves to create free WiFi service for residents or tourists. Businesses such as Google or even a local coffeehouse might do the same for consumers, but they would have to build and pay for the infrastructure to create WiFi “hot spots,” which would then provide access to the Web.

What is “free” is access to these public, or unlicensed, airwaves. By comparison, for instance, AT&T charges its customers a monthly fee to use its wireless service because the company spent billions to license the right to those airwaves.

As the story noted, the first time the agency pulled the trigger on a similar idea, numerous products were created, such as garage door openers, baby monitors and TV remote controls out of surplus bandwidth or “junk band.”

2. The idea is part of a bigger plan.

The proposal is part of the FCC’s landmark reorganization of television broadcast spectrum that would be repurposed for mobile broadband services and emergency first responders.

The vast majority of airwaves would be available for auction. But the FCC wants to reserve a portion of the nation’s spectrum for public use, according to a plan introduced in September. That portion of airwaves is known as unlicensed “white spaces” and has been referred to as super WiFi technology. As with regular WiFi, no one would have to go to the FCC to pay a licensing fee if the airwaves are used to create, say, a free wireless network.

3. The FCC is taking public comments before voting.

Officials and industry analysts say lobbying over the proposal has heated up lately. Telecom giants including network equipment makers and chip manufacturers have opposed the plan and warned against using airwaves that could interfere with other networks. But not all wireless carriers have taken a position. Verizon Wireless and AT&T said generally that more access to WiFi is good for them, too, unburdening their cellular networks.

The five-member FCC commission will vote on the plan this year, and the auctions are expected to take place in 2014.

4. It could take years for this to happen.

Some analysts said the plan is “aspirational.” Not only will there be a lot of political discussion, but it could take time for companies and consumers to figure out how best to use a new set of public airwaves.

5. It’s part of the FCC’s mission.

The FCC has a congressional mandate to repurpose airwaves for the public use. And agency officials believe that broader Web access, or what is expected to be free services, will lead to more innovation and choices for consumers, especially the poor.

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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