On public Wi-Fi, it's tech giants vs. wireless

Cecilia Kang / The Washington Post /

Published Feb 4, 2013 at 04:00AM

WASHINGTON — 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.

The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing Wi-Fi 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 many rural areas.

The new Wi-Fi networks would also have much farther reach, allowing for a driverless car to communicate to 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 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.

“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.”

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 local cities are already moving in this direction. Google is providing free Wi-Fi 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 expensive 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 Wi-Fi networks. It is not clear whether these companies would be willing to do so.

Some Republican lawmakers have criticized Genachowski for his idea of creating free Wi-Fi 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 that wrote in a letter to 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 Wi-Fi service could interfere with existing cellular networks and television broadcasts.

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