The FCC is proposing to take WiFi national, blanketing the country with free service to places the current coverage can’t reach.
The proposal from the Federal Communications Commission has rattled the $178 billion wireless industry, which has launched a fierce lobbying effort to persuade policymakers to reconsider the idea, analysts say. That has been countered by an equally intense campaign from Google, Microsoft and other tech giants who say a free-for-all WiFi service would spark an explosion of innovations and devices that would benefit most Americans, especially the poor.
The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing WiFi networks that have become common in households. They could penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees. 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 new WiFi networks would also have much farther reach, allowing for a driverless car to communicate with another vehicle a mile away or a patient’s heart monitor to connect to a hospital on the other side of town.
If approved by the FCC, the free networks would still take several years to set up. And, with no one actively managing them, connections could easily become jammed in major cities. But public WiFi could allow many consumers to make free calls from their mobile phones via the Internet. The frugal-minded could even use the service in their homes, allowing them to cut off expensive Internet bills.
Google and Microsoft are very much in favor of this plan. Cell phone providers like Verizon and AT&T not so much. They argue that the spectrum should be sold to them so they can make money off it.
This is roughly equivalent to the Rural Electrification Administration set up by FDR during the Depression to get electrical service to parts of the country that didn’t have it in the 1930’s. The government, much to the chagrin of private utilities, stepped in to provide the service when the private companies would not because they didn’t see a profit in it.
In the end, everybody got something good from it; the rural areas got power and the utilities got new customers after the government did all the heavy lifting. The same thing will happen here: cheap broadband will help the public, and Verizon will still find a way to make a buck. They always do.