MIT Technology Review

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The “Free Wi-Fi” Confusion

The FCC is not proposing nationwide free Wi-Fi–but it does have high hopes for unlicensed chunks of spectrum.

A Washington Post report has sparked some confusion over whether the FCC is proposing large public WiFi networks. In fact, the FCC is not directly proposing such networks. Which isn’t to say that the FCC doesn’t have an interesting idea up its sleeve.

It’s unclear what led the Post to write an article that misled many people into thinking the FCC was advocating a nationwide network of powerful WiFi that people could use free of charge. It appears either that the Post editorial staff confused two senses of the word “free”–one sense meaning “open,” another sense meaning “unpaid”–or that the Post got a bit ahead of itself, suggesting that one possible use of “free” (i.e. open) spectrum was in fact the most likely use.

So what exactly is going on here? VentureBeat’s Dylan Tweney’s pair of posts on the topic show a measured take; his second post is exemplary in the way it humorously dismantles the first, while clarifying what’s going on. In his first post, Tweney dutifully reported that the Post was reporting that the FCC was proposing a nationwide Wi-Fi network, which indeed the Post story did seem to suggest (Tweney added that he wasn’t able to find documentation for such a plan on the FCC site). Tweney’s second post clarified that what was actually going on here was that the FCC is simply proposing to “reserve some new bands of wireless spectrum for free, unlicensed use.”

In fact, interested parties–including Dolly Parton, oddly enough–have been wrangling over this or similar issues for years. What it boils down to is that the FCC is planning to auction off chunks of the spectrum, including the so-called “white spaces” between those frequencies allotted to broadcast TV channels. The FCC is trying to determine which chunks of spectrum should go to the highest bidder, and which chunks of spectrum should be “free,” i.e. unlicensed, or reserved for public use (your garage door openers operate on unlicensed spectrum, for instance). In a report on the upcoming auction and the value of the spectrum as an economic engine, the FCC outlines why it believes retaining part of the spectrum as unlicensed is especially valuable.

“A wide range of innovations owe their existences to the availability of unlicensed spectrum, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, radio-frequency identification (‘RFID’), cordless telephones, wireless baby monitors and numerous other wireless electronic devices,” according to the report. It goes on–and here is the portion the Post reporter or her editor seems to have really seized on: “The white spaces in the TV spectrum offer an opportunity for a new generation of products such as Super Wi-Fi and wireless broadband services for communities, particularly in rural areas… In making these proposals, the FCC seeks to promote greater innovation in new products and services, including increased access for wireless broadband services across the country.”

It’s not out of the question that some of this spectrum could be used for municipal WiFi networks. But it’s leaping to conclusions–wildly–to presume that this is how the spectrum will be used, or to even say that the FCC is advocating that it be used that way. As Slate’s Matthew Yglesias points out: “just because Wi-Fi spectrum is free doesn’t mean that Wi-Fi service is free.”

And Tweney got the FCC to clarify that the auction proposal would, in spokesman Neil Derek Grace’s words, “unleash substantial spectrum for licensed uses like 4G LTE. It would also free up unlicensed spectrum for uses including, but not limited to, next generation Wi-Fi. As the demand for mobile broadband continues to grow rapidly, we need to free up significant amounts of spectrum for commercial use, and both licensed and unlicensed spectrum must be part of the solution.”

At any rate, don’t expect free nationwide Wi-Fi anytime soon. That’s simply not the story here.