There Is No FCC Plan for Free Super Wi-Fi

A blog about business and economics.
Feb. 5 2013 11:02 AM

There Is No FCC Plan for Free Super Wi-Fi

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski wants to sell less spectrum to telecoms and leave more of it "open" for public use

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A somewhat confusingly structured Cecilia Kang article (the inverted pyramid is not a great way to explain everything) has got the whole Internet abuzz about an FCC plan to build a national Super Wi-Fi network and the evil telecommunications companies who are trying to kill it.

The FCC does have a good idea here and the telecommunications companies are evil, but there is no such plan.

The key issue is the difference between a wireless spectrum that's owned by private firms and a wireless spectrum that's "free" and "open" to whomever. The reason you can tune into a TV or radio station and get a clear signal is that it's illegal for anyone other than the owner of the frequency in question to broadcast on it. The same is true for the spectrum bands owned by the different mobile phone operating companies.


But Wi-Fi doesn't work like that. You buy a router, plug it in, turn it on, and bam—you're broadcasting a Wi-Fi signal. The reason that works is that Wi-Fi routers operate on a band of spectrum that isn't in private hands. It's left "open" for anyone to use. Garage door openers operate on a similar principle.

The controversy Kang's writing about is a longstanding dispute over what to do with analog television broadcast spectrum that TV stations were given long ago. There are many ins-and-outs to this, but the basic issue is that telecom companies want as much spectrum as possible to be sold to telecom companies while FCC chairman Julius Genachowski wants to sell less spectrum to telecoms and leave more of it "open" for public use. He and major Silicon Valley firms believe that this spectrum could be used in a way that's comparable to Wi-Fi, except with stronger, more robust signals. But just because Wi-Fi spectrum is free doesn't mean that Wi-Fi service is free. Any kind of "super Wi-Fi" is the same.

Perhaps if the spectrum were open and the technology worked, some cities would use it to build municipal broadband networks, but there's no need for it to be used that way. Garage door opener spectrum is free, but there's no municipal garage door networks.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Learns That Breaking Up a Country Is Hard to Do

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola: It Preys on the Compassionate

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!


Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 19 2014 12:33 PM The Precarious Predicament of Russia’s Neighbors
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
The Eye
Sept. 19 2014 12:50 PM This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 12:10 PM Watch the Trailer for Big Eyes, a Tim Burton Movie About People With Normal-Sized Eyes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.