FCC’s ‘Super Wi-Fi’ Plan Aims to Bring Free Wireless to All

In the latest gambit to create broadband for all, the FCC is floating an idea for a network of “super-Wi-Fi” coverage nationwide that would be free for consumers. The initiative, if approved, could take several years to roll out, but would leverage unlicensed spectrum as a path to fulfilling the government mandate to connect the underserved and encourage innovation.

Predictably, according to The Washington Post, the lines of support and opposition are being drawn for the plan already, as wireless operators consider what they stand to lose. Some industry-watchers however say their fears will prove to be unfounded.

No details have been released regarding what the business arrangements would be to underpin the effort–i.e., who would build and manage it. Presumably the effort would be a public-private enterprise that would offer financial incentives to companies willing to take it on. It’s also the FCC’s hope that ubiquitous coverage will engender new business models, just as the Web itself did upon its inception.

“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,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in an e-mailed statement to the Post.

In the “opposed” column are, of course, carriers who stand to lose vast chunks of the $178 billion wireless subscription industry to free Wi-Fi service and cheap VoIP; in the supporter fold, it’s Google and Microsoft, who champion open access (which is of course a good conduit for their own wares in Internet advertising and applications).

“The news here looks to be comments from Google and Microsoft (odd bedfellows, to be sure) advocating the idea of the federal government using broadcast spectrum for new so-called free Wi-Fi networks versus selling off those airwaves to commercial operators,” said Yankee Group senior analyst Rich Karpinski, in an e-mailed comment. “Hardware and Web companies would certainly benefit from cheap, ubiquitous broadband access for their customers—although it’s not as if a lack of connectivity held back the explosion in smartphones nor is threatening to derail an expected second wave of post-PC/post-smartphone connected devices now coming down the pike.”

However, perhaps the howls of protest from wireless and broadband operators are unwarranted. For one thing, free public Wi-Fi is not likely to be able to support the kind of Quality of Service one would get from a residential cable modem or even a 4G connection, especially for things like video.

That’s because when it comes to execution, the devil is in the details.

“Not only would the government need to fund and deploy the air interface portion of the network, all of that would-be mobile data traffic would need to be backhauled, a not-incidental ongoing operational cost that also requires a significant upfront capital investment in local fiber or microwave backhaul links,” he said. “Further, deploying a best-effort light Web access network is a far cry from the type of Internet of things-capable network that is being discussed—a more challenging endeavor that would require significant network smarts to ensure that smart car automated-driving connections (one of the examples in the Washington Post story) aren’t knocked off the network by freeloading users updating their Facebook pages.”

With the opex and capex overhead that building an operator-equivalent network would entail staring the plan in the face, Karpinski figures that ultimately, the siren song of simply taking carrier money will win out.

“Operators want to get their hands on those airwaves themselves,” he noted. “U.S. operators have proven very good at turning spectrum into well-monetized services—and they are willing to pay for access to additional airwaves. For a cash-strapped federal government, we’ll bet that ultimately the ability to raise new auction revenue will prove more alluring than getting bogged down with the capex costs and opex complexities of out-operating the world’s most successful mobile operators.”

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