Free WiFi is a selling point in NoMa, but why isn’t the Internet free wherever we’d want it?


(Mike Byers for The Washington Post)

Utopia announces itself in magenta and margarita green.

“Free Outdoor WiFi,” say the placards shellacked to the sidewalks of First Street NE. Their cheery color scheme and matter-of-fact wording makes WiFi seem like both an amenity and a necessity, at least when pondered to the sound of water cascading over the stone facade of a nearby palace of swank apartments (sorry, residences). NoMa claimed this month that it’s the first D.C. neighborhood to connect the air we breathe to free Internet, and maybe it is, if you’re particular about the definitions of “first” and “neighborhood” and “Internet.”

But the livelier, whinier point of contention is this: Why, more than a decade into the proliferation of WiFi networks, is free wireless Internet not available everywhere all the time, especially in the capital of the free world? Why must we purchase and set up our own individual hotspots, or linger in coffee shops, or siphon connectivity from unsecured networks, or make do with our phones?

Why in 2014 is a neighborhood stoked to offer a service that for some has become as elemental as clean air, as sacrosanct as a universal human right?

“The technology really wasn’t ready until now,” says Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a D.C.-based consumer advocacy group dedicated to an open and accessible Internet. “It took a while for the technology to get up to speed and work and for people to understand the value. And now people are ready for it, you’ve got an infrastructure that can support it, you’ve got institutions like libraries that are embedded in the community — now we need to put all the pieces together.”

One problem: The market relies on consumers to purchase connectivity individually. In other words, blame AT&T or Verizon, if you’re willing to also blame capitalism as a whole.

You could also blame government inertia and — brace yourself for jargon — the limited availability of unlicensed radio spectrum frequencies, the bands of airwaves that are open for use by anybody. At its May 15 meeting, the Federal Communications Commission will prepare the rules for the 2015 auction of the broadcast-TV range of the radio spectrum. Some of these bands will be set aside for unlicensed use — which could be a boost to WiFi, local broadband connectivity and technological innovation in general — and some will be auctioned to the highest licensed bidder, i.e. corporations that are already in the game.

“Whenever I think about putting in a new WiFi hotspot, I want to look at the level of service and whether industry can do it,” says D.C.’s chief technology officer, Rob Mancini, whose office has rolled out more than 600 public WiFi hotspots in the city over the years. “When government and industry can combine forces in a way that’s productive, this is where the American example shines.”

This reliance on industry sometimes can result in “a learned helplessness” in city governments, says Greta Byrum, an urban planner and senior field analyst for the Open Technology Institute.

“With the consolidation that you see — the Time Warner and Comcast merger — there’s definitely interests that don’t want to see any kind of diversification of the market or new models at play,” Byrum says. “Local communities have the power to create their own infrastructure, but a lot of people think they don’t know how or that it might be illegal. It’s difficult to do an infrastructure DIY project. You have to have a lot of passion.”

Consider the effort to wire NoMa, a project that took more than a year of planning and designing. The neighborhood’s Internet couldn’t happen without access points — 17 gray, foot-wide boxes that are perched on streetlights or on top of buildings — and the gathering of permits, the routing of electricity, and so on.

“If you get on anybody’s roof, that’s a process, and some required license agreements,” says Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District. “And to be able to put devices on lampposts took a good bit of conversation about attaching them and how they look and whether they affected the performance of the lamppost.”

Thus, a human right may hinge on whether it eclipses the radiance of a streetlight.

Granted, the patchwork of free and public WiFi in wealthy parts of the District is worlds away from the 20 percent of Americans who don’t have household broadband or a smartphone, from the two-thirds of the global population that doesn’t have any reliable access to the Web, and from nations that restrict or disconnect their population from the Internet (see Russia, Syria). Three years ago, the United Nations declared that depriving a citizen of access to the Internet is a violation of the human right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers,” as it’s phrased in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Speaking of frontiers: space!

If you’re not in range of those rooftop transmitters in NoMa, do not despair. Internet connectivity will soon come from orbit, beyond the reach of municipal governments, industry incumbents and authoritarian countries. Last month, Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s plan to beam the Internet through lasers, satellites and drones to swaths of the planet that are not already covered by 2G or 3G networks. Google’s Project Loon will do the same thing but with high-altitude balloons, perhaps by 2020.

Then there’s Outernet, which would use satellites to broadcast a library of content to the entire planet for free via the unlicensed spectrum of radio waves, starting as early as June 2015. It wouldn’t replicate the limitless browsing experience of the Internet, but it could be the next big step toward unified planetary connectivity.

As with most plans involving global domination, the ambitions are grand and as yet unrealized. A dozen transponders (already in orbit) could link humanity to 500 gigabytes of new data per day, says Outernet founder Syed Karim, director of innovation at the nonprofit Media Investment Development Fund, which is backing the project and has already invested $128 million in media businesses across 31 countries. Open-source material, Creative Commons content, the literature and courseware in the public domain — it would all be broadcast to Earth via satellites and intermediary hotspots that store content locally and allow any WiFi device to connect.

“We’re building a library for everyone, and removing the physical nature of what a library has to do, for about $15 million a year,” Karim says, adding via e-mail, “If information is the currency of the modern global economy, Outernet is a free ATM.”

The step after Outernet?

A “space-based, jurisdiction-free, regulation-proof laser Internet system,” he says.

Shellac that in magenta on the moon.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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