Why the Feds Should Promote Wi-Fi Everywhere

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Feb. 8 2013 10:56 AM

Why the Feds Should Promote Wi-Fi Everywhere

The FCC isn’t really creating a free nationwide wireless network. But it might happen anyway.

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An increasing majority of data consumed on mobile devices is from video—and most video is consumed indoors or otherwise within Wi-Fi range of the wired network. So like BT, the unlicensed wireless offerings of Big Cable (Comcast, Cablevision, and Time Warner Cable) are potentially very disruptive. As these efforts proliferate and consumers wise up, the recent efforts of AT&T and Verizon to impose data caps and charge wireless users premium prices for streaming video and other high-bandwidth apps could be thwarted.

Another indicator of the importance of more prime spectrum for unlicensed access is the steady growth of the roughly 2,000 mom-and-pop wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) that use unlicensed to beam broadband to as many as 1 million homes and small businesses in small towns and rural areas. WISPs have placed hundreds of preorders for wireless gear that operates on the vacant TV channels that the FCC began opening for unlicensed use last year. Because TV-band spectrum can cover very large areas, bend around hills, and penetrate trees and buildings far better than today’s Wi-Fi spectrum (which is located in higher frequencies), the WISPs rightly argue that more and better unlicensed is the key to universal and affordable broadband service in rural America.

A third critical market increasingly dominated by unlicensed connectivity is machine-to-machine communications—the emerging “Internet of Things.” Energy and environmental monitoring, mobile health, smart-grid networks, and intelligent transportation are just the beginning of a trend toward embedding wireless connectivity into almost every system in every sector.

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A study just published by Harvard Law professor Yochai Benkler documents the widespread market adoption of unlicensed wireless strategies, which make up more than 80 percent of wireless health care and smart-grid devices. In a report last July recommending opportunistic sharing of all underutilized federal spectrum bands (such as lightly-used military radar bands), the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology noted that by 2020 “the connected device market is expected to be dominated not by mobile phones ... but by machine-to-machine (M2M) devices—as many as 50 billion of them by some estimates.”

All this raises the stakes as the FCC decides how much of the very limited supply of prime spectrum will be auctioned for exclusively licensed use and how much will be open for unlicensed use. As the Post reporter acknowledged in a clarification yesterday, the “super Wi-Fi” discussed in her story actually refers to the TV channels that will be freed up as the FCC reorganizes the broadcast band. Currently only one in six TV channels is in use by full-power stations in the average media market—and only 10 percent to 12 percent of households rely on over-the-air signals. (The rest subscribe to cable, satellite, or telco TV like FIOS.)

Oregon’s Greg Walden, a former broadcaster who chairs the Commerce Committee’s telecom subcommittee, and a few other leading House Republicans want to auction as much TV spectrum as possible—and use some of that revenue to help fund a wireless network for public safety agencies. Other prominent Republicans, such as Rep. Darrell Issa of California, actively support unlicensed spectrum in the TV bands as deregulatory and a sandbox for innovation. Opponents, however, deride it as “free spectrum for Google.” The fact that this makes even less sense than saying the interstate highway system is “free roads for UPS” doesn’t seem to pierce their ideological blinders.

So far FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is standing up to conservative pressure for short-term revenue. He wants to ensure a substantial amount of unlicensed spectrum in every market—and hence markets of national scope and scale for “Super Wi-Fi” chips, devices, and services. In addition, the FCC recently proposed opening two much larger swaths of higher-frequency spectrum for unlicensed use that are currently reserved for mostly military use.

If all of the commission’s proposals are adopted—and shared public spectrum is plentiful—the good news about widespread and low-cost public Wi-Fi networks reported by the Post this week may actually become reality. Let’s hope.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Michael Calabrese directs the Wireless Future Project at the Open Technology Institute, which is part of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan policy institute in Washington, D.C.

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