09 29 2016
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Mary Beth Henry

News media across the United States carried a Washington Post story, Tuesday, saying the Federal Communications Commission wants to give free Wi-Fi to everyone. But don't ditch your cell phone plan yet. Newsflash! The news media got it wrong.

Nothing in current FCC plans is going to deliver universal free Wi-Fi.

In the Washington Post story, Cecilia Kang writes that the Federal Communication Commission, "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 cell phone bill every month….

"If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and many rural areas."

However the true story is more complex. Providing free public Wi-Fi access would require a network, and the network would need to be managed. The FCC has no plans to build or manage any networks.
Neil Grace, a spokesman for the agency explained, that the White Spaces plan, created several years ago, simply frees up some bandwidth, giving the potential for Wi-Fi uses. The agency seeks to do that by encouraging TV stations to return unused bandwidth.

"The FCC's incentive auction proposal, launched in September of last year, would unleash substantial spectrum for licensed uses like 4G LTE," Grace said. "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."

Technology bloggers soon started shooting holes in the Post's story
, pointing out that the commission has no plans to build and manage a national Super Wi-Fi network.  Grace confirmed what bloggers were saying:  the story was based on the longstanding White Spaces plan, that frees up airwaves by reclaiming unused broadcast bandwidth.

"The reporter misreported," said Mary Beth Henry, staff director for the Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission and Manager of the Office for Community Technology at the City of Portland. "She failed to ask the question, 'Who's going to build it and pay for it?'

"I wish it were true. It would be a wonderful thing if the United States did step forward to do that. Our broadband strategic plan clearly identifies that Internet access is vital, and we're leaving many people behind.  So I wish we were going to have universal free broadband access. But there is no possibility that would happen."

A survey by Mt. Hood Regulatory Commission found one in four Portland metro-area residents don't have Internet access at home. And half of everyone who earns under $30,000 a year has no Internet access. Free Wi-Fi could help bridge that digital divide.

Several initiatives in Portland have attempted to build a universal network. So could the White Spaces plan make it possible in future?

"It might be an important step in expanding Internet access," Henry says. "But the FCC is not going to be building a network."

The FCC recently announced plans to run reverse auctions, where television stations would sell back unused airwaves, which could then be used for "unlicensed" Wi-Fi. As Kang's article noted, telecom providers, "the $178 billion wireless industry," don't love the idea of losing their income. At the same time, technology firms, such as Google, Microsoft and others see business opportunities for themselves.

The Post's story seems to be based on a passage from the commission's latest press release, which describes  those plans . The release says:

"In addition to unleashing licensed spectrum, we also propose to free up a significant amount of unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi-like uses.  Today's proposal would create the world's first nationwide unlicensed spectrum band suitable for robust wireless broadband, on contiguous low-band frequencies.  Surprisingly, there's been some disagreement on this. But this is a time to be embracing and extending WiFi-like uses of spectrum, as we take unprecedented steps to free up a very substantial amount of spectrum for licensed use. Unlicensed spectrum has a powerful record of driving innovation, investment, and economic growth – hundreds of billions of dollars of value creation for our economy and consumers.  Why would we turn our back on WiFi-like innovation, particularly when we can unleash both licensed and unlicensed spectrum?"

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