The truth about ‘free Wi-Fi’

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Today’s front page story in the Washington Post—provocatively headlined “Tech, telecom giants take sides as FCC proposes large public Wi-Fi networks”—will surely get a lot of attention. But there’s little cause for alarm: The story is almost entirely fiction. The FCC has not proposed large public Wi-Fi networks, and the only “taking of sides” going on is over highly technical issues associated with how to carry off planned incentive auctions, which are designed to transfer 120 MHz of broadcast television spectrum to wireless broadband providers, who need it to meet exploding demand.

As many will recall, back in early 2010 the FCC released its National Broadband Plan. It’s a sweeping document, full of plenty of ideas and proposals to argue about, but one idea around which there was and remains wide agreement was its politically courageous proposal to find a way to transfer some spectrum from broadcasters to wireless broadband. Specifically, the Commission proposed to hold incentive auctions in which it would act as a “third party auctioneer,” transferring spectrum from the broadcasters to the wireless carriers, with the broadcasters getting a portion of the proceeds.

There have been some bumps in the road along the way, but give the FCC credit for persistence. In February 2012, Congress passed the “Spectrum Act,” giving the Commission broad authority to conduct the auctions, and late last year the FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking asking for input on how to do so. The target date for the auctions is in 2014.

The comments submitted late last month in response to the NPRM—over 200 in total—were mostly thoughtful discussions of detailed technical issues: How to structure the guard bands around the new mobile wireless spectrum bands, whether the reverse (broadcasters selling spectrum) and forward (mobile wireless carriers buying it) auctions should be held in parallel or sequentially, and, yes, how much spectrum to set aside for unlicensed use. They signal two things: The FCC faces some really difficult technical challenges to carrying off the auction successfully, but also that people are now beginning to believe it will happen. That’s a big success for the FCC, and if it is able to get this done it will be a big success for wireless broadband, which desperately needs the additional spectrum.

What you won’t find in the comments are responses to the proposal “designed by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski” for the federal government to “create super Wi-Fi networks across the nation.” There’s a reason for that: The proposal exists only in the rich imaginations of a handful of cyber-socialists, who just can’t come to terms with the fact that America’s largely market-based communications policiesare working, and instead see broadband as the next battlefield in the progressive war against private ownership. There’s a lot we can argue with the Obama administration about—but so far, nationalizing the Internet doesn’t seem to be on the list.

Full disclosure: I submitted a declaration in the incentive auction NPRM on behalf of a group of broadcasters who want to participate. It doesn’t mention unlicensed spectrum or Wi-Fi.