FCC wants free WiFi for all

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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The FCC is aiming to create a free super WiFi network, putting the agency at odds with wireless companies and market advocates.

Companies like Verizon have fought with the government about spectrum allocation, stating that a large portion of spectrum held by the government is not in use and that freeing it up would alleviate current network congestion problems affecting consumers.

The highly prized frequencies used by mobile carriers, cable companies and so forth, however, do not belong to those companies except through a license guaranteeing them exclusive rights to those frequencies.  Spectrum is considered a public natural resource, and the licenses are issued and overseen by the FCC.

The FCC’s vision is in line with companies like Google and Microsoft, who are seeking to develop the “Internet of Things”, in which even common every day items like refrigerators and cars would be connected to the Internet.

“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,” reported the Washington Post Monday.

While free WiFi access might sound like a good idea, especially as consumer demand increases for data intensive Internet experiences via their mobile devices, the cost of building and maintaining such an infrastructure has companies and market advocates reeling.

The challenge faced by the agency lies both in the unprecedented continental scale of the project, and from resistance by interests that view the undertaking as part of an effort to turn the Internet into a highly-regulated public utility.

For example, free market advocate Scott Cleland criticized the idea in a recent oped in The Daily Caller, stating that “current law, policy and precedent have repeatedly determined that broadband” — which is delivered via several methods, including WiFi — “is not, and should not be treated as, a public utility.”

The Washington Post report states that the source of the opposition to the FCC’s new goal is a “fierce lobbying campaign” launched by the $178 billion wireless industry. The lobbying campaign in support of the proposal, however, is just as fierce.

“That has been countered by an equally intense campaign from GoogleMicrosoft 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,” reported the Washington Post.

Institutions such as billionaire philanthropist George Soro’s Open Society Institute have published papers advocating for a public utility-style Internet.

Even the FCC’s own Open Internet Order, affectionately referred to as ‘net neutrality’ by the order’s advocates and opponents alike, was viewed by opponents as one more step towards federal regulation of the Internet.

On the International level, the U.N. has moved toward an idea that Internet access should be considered a human right. 

Vint Cerf — Google’s chief Internet evangelist and one of the fathers of the Internet — contested in early 2012 that the Internet might better be considered a civil right instead of a human right.

Still, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, in his forthcoming book, A New Digital Age, advocates a closer relationship between Western technology companies and Western governments to combat the rise of China in the global IT space.

Update: The veracity of the original story by The Washington Post is now being disputed by industry experts.

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