By Cecilia Kang
The federal government wants to create super WiFi 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 WiFi service would spark an explosion of innovations and devices that would benefit most Americans, especially the poor.
The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing WiFi networks that have become common in households. They could penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees. If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and in many rural areas.
The new WiFi networks would also have much farther reach, allowing for a driverless car to communicate with another vehicle a mile away or a patient’s heart monitor to connect to a hospital on the other side of town.
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 WiFi 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.
“For a casual user of the Web, perhaps this could replace carrier service,” said Jeffrey Silva, an analyst at the Medley Global Advisors research firm. “Because it is more plentiful and there is no price tag, it could have a real appeal to some people.”
The major wireless carriers own much more spectrum than what is being proposed for public WiFi, making their networks more robust, experts say.
Designed by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, the plan would be a global first. When the U.S. government made a limited amount of unlicensed airwaves available in 1985, an unexpected explosion in innovation followed. Baby monitors, garage door openers and wireless stage microphones were created. Millions of homes now run their own wireless networks, connecting tablets, game consoles, kitchen appliances and security systems to the Internet.
“Freeing up unlicensed spectrum is a vibrantly free-market approach that offers low barriers to entry to innovators developing the technologies of the future and benefits consumers,” Genachowski said in a an e-mailed statement.
Some companies and cities are already moving in this direction. Google is providing free WiFi to the public in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and parts of Silicon Valley.
Cities support the idea because the networks would lower costs for schools and businesses or help vacationers easily find tourist spots. Consumer advocates note the benefits to the poor, who often cannot afford high cellphone and Internet bills.
The proposal would require local television stations and other broadcasters to sell a chunk of airwaves to the government that would be used for the public WiFi networks. It is not clear whether these companies would be willing to do so.
The FCC’s plan is part of a broader strategy to repurpose entire swaths of the nation’s airwaves to accomplish a number of goals, including bolstering cellular networks and creating a dedicated channel for emergency responders.
Some Republican lawmakers have criticized Genachowski for his idea of creating free WiFi networks, noting that an auction of the airwaves would raise billions for the U.S. Treasury.
That sentiment echoes arguments made by companies such as AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Intel and Qualcomm, in a letter to the FCC staff late last month, that the government should focus its attention on selling the airwaves to businesses.
Some of these companies also cautioned that a free WiFi service could interfere with existing cellular networks and television broadcasts.
Intel, whose chips are used in many of the devices that operate on cellular networks, fears that the new WiFi service would crowd the airwaves. The company said it would rather the FCC use the airwaves from television stations to bolster high-speed cellular networks, known as 4G.
“We think that that spectrum would be most useful to the larger society and to broadband deployment if it were licensed,” said Peter Pitsch, the executive director of communications for Intel. “As unlicensed, there would be a disincentive to invest in expensive networking equipment and provide users with optimal quality of service.”
Cisco and other telecommunications equipment firms told the FCC that it needs to test the airwaves more for potential interference.
“Cisco strongly urges the commission to firmly retreat from the notion that it can predict, or should predict . . . how the unlicensed guard bands might be used,” the networking giant wrote.
Supporters of the free-WiFi plan say telecom equipment firms have long enjoyed lucrative relationships with cellular carriers and may not want to disrupt that model.
An FCC official added that there is little proof so far that the spectrum that could be used for public WiFi systems would knock out broadcast and 4G wireless signals.
“We want our policy to be more end-user-centric and not carrier-centric. That’s where there is a difference in opinion” with carriers and their partners, said a senior FCC official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the proposal is still being considered by the five-member panel.
The lobbying from the cellular industry motivated longtime rivals Google and Microsoft to join forces to support the FCC’s proposal. Both companies would benefit from a boom in new devices that could access the free WiFi networks.
These companies want corporations to multiply the number of computers, robots, devices and other machines that are able to connect to the Internet, analysts said. They want cars that drive themselves to have more robust Internet access.
More public WiFi, they say, will spur the use of “millions of devices that will compose the coming Internet of things,” the firms wrote in their comment to the FCC last week.
“What this does for the first time is bring the prospect of cheap broadband, but like any proposal it has to get through a political process first,” said Harold Feld, a vice president at the public interest group Public Knowledge.