An amazing story circulated today through much of the mainstream media and tech press. The US government is going to build gigantic Wi-Fi networks across the country, giving free Internet access to everyone.
Or perhaps the US would somehow force wireless providers to build these networks—in which case, it’s not clear why this amazing new Internet service would be free, unless the goal was to destroy the entire business model of both cellular carriers and Internet service providers in one fell swoop.
The headlines were literally too good to be true, and so outlandish no one should have written them in the first place. “FCC Proposes Free Wi-Fi For Everyone In The US,” Popular Science reported. “FCC wants free Wi-Fi for all,” said The Daily Caller. On Mashable, it was “Government Wants to Create Free Public ‘Super Wi-Fi’,” and Business Insider breathlessly reported, “Telecom Corporations Are Trying To Stop The Government From Offering Free ‘Super Wi-Fi'”
It all originated from one Washington Post report with the less-shouty headline “Tech, telecom giants take sides as FCC proposes large public Wi-Fi networks.” The report had some bold, inaccurate claims, notably this one: “If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and in many rural areas.”
I saw the story this morning, read it, and was confused. Isn’t this just the White Spaces proposal that’s been around for a few years and has never once been pitched as “free Wi-Fi for all”? White Spaces may well be an important step toward expanding Internet access, but it isn’t going to bring free Wi-Fi to every major US city.
It seemed no one was asking the most obvious question: who would build Wi-Fi everywhere and give it away for free? “It would cost money, so I don’t see a path toward ubiquitous free Wi-Fi that is at an acceptable quality level,” wireless engineer Steven Crowley told me in an e-mail today.
White Spaces takes the spectrum from empty TV channels and allows the airwaves to be used for Wi-Fi, or “Super Wi-Fi” as it’s sometimes called. Using lower frequencies than traditional Wi-Fi, White Spaces signals would be better at penetrating obstacles and thus travel farther.
But the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) isn’t going to build the network itself. The agency allocates spectrum for certain uses to spur private investment—someone else will have to find a reason to build it.
“One business case for unlicensed TV white spaces is for long-distance unlicensed links in rural areas,” Crowley said. “2.4GHz Wi-Fi is used for that now, but the lower frequencies of TV White Spaces should propagate further and better, over and around obstructions in the path. To me, now, it may be the best business case, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make it a business.”
We’ve written about White Spaces on numerous occasions. The FCC gave its thumbs-up in 2008. We wrote about test networks in 2010, and by December 2011 the FCC had approved the first White Spaces broadband device.
The Post article ostensibly covers the same topic, but it’s full of far-fetched claims, exaggerations, and wishful thinking:
The federal government wants 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.
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 Wi-Fi service would spark an explosion of innovations and devices that would benefit most Americans, especially the poor.
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 Wi-Fi 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.
I put an emphasis on that “no one actively managing them” phrase because that’s simply untrue of White Spaces. Because White Spaces spectrum is shared between unlicensed uses such as Wi-Fi and TV broadcasters, a sophisticated database system is needed to manage use of the airwaves. One set of airwaves might be available to consumer devices in certain places and certain times—but in other places and times those same airwaves would be reserved for TV broadcasters, making them off-limits to the public. Consumer devices getting on the Internet via White Spaces airwaves would have to connect to databases that act like air traffic controllers.
The point is, White Spaces (and similar spectrum sharing plans) take planning and organization. It’s not a free-for-all.
In the context of the Post article, “unmanaged” could mean simply the spectrum is unlicensed and that any device could connect to it, just like any other Wi-Fi network. But citywide Wi-Fi networks would have to be built by someone with deep pockets and likely a profit motive—there’s no reason to think someone would build the network and then just leave it. Congestion can happen on any network, but that doesn’t mean no one is managing it.
A grain of truth, exaggerated and repeated
The Post article was apparently spurred by a relatively minor development, the FCC taking comments from industry players about the agency’s plan to free up spectrum owned by TV broadcasters through incentive auctions. Newly freed spectrum in the 600MHz band could be used for Super Wi-Fi and other services that might expand mobile Internet access.
Google and Microsoft issued a joint statement supporting the auctions while urging the agency to:
(1) create a band plan with unlicensed designations that are large enough to support investment; (2) preserve white spaces in the remaining television broadcast bands; and (3) promote efficient use of the UHF spectrum by establishing new rules for wireless microphone operations.
Many reporters blindly repeated the Post’s confused account and even embellished upon it, but we can be thankful that some good journalists noticed and had their debunking skills at the ready.
Jerry Brito, director of the Technology Policy Program at George Mason University, laid out the most relevant details on The Technology Liberation Front with an article titled “All you need to know about ‘Super Wi-Fi.'”
“Free Wi-Fi networks, folks!” Brito wrote. “Wow, what an amazing new plan. But, wait a minute. Who is going to pay for these free nationwide networks? They’ve got to be built after all. Hmmm. It doesn’t seem like the article really explains that part.”
The Post reporter was asked on Twitter what prompted the new article, and whether the fantabulous account had any relation to the much more modest White Spaces plan the rest of us are familiar with. The reporter confirmed the article was about White Spaces, even though the piece never used that phrase, and said the only new thing “is all [the] comments that came into FCC recently support and against.”
In response to that tweet, Brito wrote: “Oh. You mean there’s no new plan? It’s the same incentive auction NPRM [notice of proposed rule-making] we’ve been talking about for months? And the only new things are (largely predictable) public comments filed last week? Well that’s a bummer. Not to worry, though, I’m sure the WaPo and Mashable and Business Insider and all the rest will be quick to clarify all of the confusion.”
Brito also wrote that the spectrum the Post wrote about “couldn’t possibly be used for a nationwide wireless network.”
DSLReports was among those debunking the free Wi-Fi for all story, noting “the initiative isn’t new, it has been fighting for survival for nearly a decade, and it still has a long and ugly political gauntlet to run before it can even begin to disrupt the existing telecom apple cart.”
Dan Frommer weighed in with some key questions few other reporters asked. For example:
- “Why would the Internet access be free?”
- “Why would this be better than the inexpensive Internet service we already subscribe to?”
- “Would this even work with the devices you and I carry around all day?”
- “Why is this in the news again, anyway? This has been vaporware for years.”
The other all-too obvious question we noted earlier: who would build these giant networks?
On The American Prospect, Paul Waldman wrote it’s possible “somebody like Google would establish a network using this part of the spectrum, let’s say for a city or a region, and then if you wanted to get on that network they’d be the gatekeeper, meaning you could get on as long as you signed in with your Gmail account.”
Waldman notes “That’s good for Google, because they can put ads in front of you, and it may be good for you too.” But it’s bad for cell phone companies and Internet service providers “whose service might not seem so appealing anymore. Which means that you can bet that Verizon, Comcast et. al will fight this with all their considerable might.”
Free Wi-Fi everywhere you go? Keep dreaming, you crazy dreamers.
Reported from ARS Technica