Free "Super-Wifi" Everywhere? Don't Hold Your Breath.

We spend a lot of time arguing about whether government should be big or small, which is almost always the wrong question. Among the right questions are how government should go about doing what it has to do, and on whose behalf it ought to operate. I bring this up because of a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission, discussed in this article in today's Washington Post, to open up a big chunk of spectrum to spread wifi hither and yon, potentially creating a nirvana of free internet and cell phone access. Sound too good to be true? Yeah, it is. But here's how the Post described it:

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.

Sounds awesome, but don't call Comcast and tell them to shove their crappy, overpriced service quite yet. (By the way, there's never a bad time to remind ourselves that compared to other industrialized countries, our internet service is dreadful; if you lived in Korea or France or Finland you'd have faster service and pay much less for it.) First of all, when the Post says there would be "no one actively managing" these networks, it's hard to see what they're talking about. Setting up a network requires an up-front investment in equipment and manpower that somebody is going to have to pay for, and a network has to be managed by somebody, otherwise when it encountered its first problem it would just never work again, and that isn't a very good idea. So what are we talking about?

Well, we obviously don't know for sure because this is many years from becoming a reality. But it could be that 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. That's good for Google, because they can put ads in front of you, and it may be good for you too. And who is it bad for? It's bad for the cell phone companies, if you can place calls with the Google wifi that covers your town, and it's bad for the existing 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. Which in turn means it could end up playing out like some old stories: groovy new technology promises tremendous benefit to consumers; rent-seeking corporations with lots of money exercise their political influence to crush it; consumers lose.

There are plenty of technical issues to be resolved relating to the fact that this spectrum would be shared; Prospect contributor and tech policy sensei Nancy Scola tells me that Google has been hinting that they're developing ways to avoid the interference that would result when all kinds of people are using the same spectrum space, but who knows how that'll work out. In any case, the picture painted by the Post of ubiquitous free internet for all is nice, but I'll believe it when I see it. In cases like this, it's usually safe to bet that the people with the most lobbyists are going to win, and that'd be the telecom companies.

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