On Monday, the Washington Post’s 1.4 million Twitter followers woke up to this good news tweet: “Free WiFi Everywhere? That’s the Plan.”
The teaser referred to the Post’s Page 1 story reporting that the Federal Communications Commission is proposing “to create super Wi-Fi networks across the nation so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month.”
If only this was true! Unfortunately, as Slate’s Matt Yglesias reported soon after, there is no plan for a free government super Wi-Fi network. What sounded like a plan to create free public Wi-Fi networks is in fact a less ambitious but still vital proposal to reallocate a larger share of the best public airwaves (spectrum) for free shared use without the need for a license. That’s exactly how Wi-Fi operates today—on “unlicensed” bands of spectrum that are equally open to everyone.
There is certainly a strong case to be made that 21st-century public infrastructure should include a minimum level of broadband connectivity almost everywhere. By leveraging existing public assets—both unlicensed spectrum and the spider web of federal, state, and local fiber optic backhaul that crisscrosses the nation—it would be relatively inexpensive to blanket most areas with a basic level of wireless connectivity.
In reality, though, the FCC is not proposing to subsidize the construction of networks. Instead, the agency wants to make enough free and high-quality unlicensed spectrum available that a far wider range of private companies, local governments, and individuals will find it economical to either offer or consume more broadband Internet services.
Mobile carriers like AT&T typically purchase licenses granting exclusive use of spectrum at auctions, which enables them to offer predictable quality of service. For example, AT&T and Verizon paid $16 billion at the first auction of TV band spectrum in 2008, acquiring nearly 80 percent of the license areas auctioned. Unlicensed, in contrast, is used free of charge but shared by an unpredictable number of other devices and networks, none of which have interference protection from the rest. And yet, as most Wi-Fi users will attest, it works remarkably well at most times and places.
There are already clear signs in the United States and abroad that if enough of this public spectrum resource is made freely available for unlicensed use, the private sector will step up and make wireless connectivity ubiquitous and affordable, at least in urban and suburban areas. Freeing up more unlicensed spectrum holds out the promise of solving the so-called “spectrum crisis” created by exploding consumer demand for video and other high-bandwidth apps on mobile devices, while simultaneously bringing competition and innovation to a cellular market that has been rapidly trending toward a two-carrier duopoly dominated by AT&T and Verizon Wireless.
A case in point is BT Wi-Fi, a massive collection of Wi-Fi hotspots created by British Telecom, the U.K.’s leading wireline telco. Formerly called OpenZone, BT has turned 4.5 million of its wired broadband customers into open hotspots of wireless connectivity. They did this by installing Wi-Fi routers that are also transmitting broadband connections open to any other BT customer—or anyone purchasing a day pass. Where BT’s customers are located close enough together, BT Wi-Fi creates a cloud of connectivity that allows mobile device users to bypass their wireless carrier (which, like U.S. carriers, may be metering and gouging consumers for bandwidth consumption).
BT customers also have access to another 3 million hotspots across Europe, since they are part of a larger consortium organized by FON, the Spanish telecom provider that pioneered the concept.
This wave is washing up on our shores now—and it’s already reconfiguring the politics of spectrum access, as well as the future architecture of broadband networks. Although unlicensed spectrum is typically associated with home and coffee shop Wi-Fi, as well as with embattled community networks promoted by nonprofits and some municipalities, increasingly the leading broadband carriers are waking up to the cost-effectiveness of sharing public spectrum.
Five years ago, the most powerful opponents of unlicensed spectrum were AT&T and Verizon. Today, AT&T operates more than 30,000 Wi-Fi hotspots—and dozens of “hot zones” in places like Times Square and Wrigley Field—to relieve congestion that iPhones, iPads, and other mobile devices create on its pricey and limited licensed spectrum. Verizon, meanwhile, has formed a partnership with a consortium of the largest cable companies, which have rapidly built out more than 50,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to promote “TV Everywhere” for their wireline subscribers. As a result, the cable companies have recently become advocates for more unlicensed spectrum.