Will the FCC's free WiFi plan bridge the digital divide?

Are powerful, free WiFi networks coming soon to your neighborhood? Maybe, but don’t hold your breath

free-wifi-600x450_0.jpgImage credit: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Is free WiFi for all coming soon?

Yesterday I wrote about the effect that the digital divide in America is having on millions of students who don’t have high speed Internet access at home. As I mentioned, there was no simple solution to the problem on the horizon. The costs and complications of bringing affordable broadband access to every person in every corner of this country are great.

Turns out, as the Washington Post wrote yesterday, that the FCC has a proposal for just such a solution. Well, sort of.

The Post wrote about an FCC plan that was proposed last fall to encourage TV stations to sell back some of their spectrum to the government. The government, in turn, would then sell some of that spectrum to wireless companies, so they can expand and bolster their networks, and to designate a portion of the reclaimed spectrum for unlicensed use. Unlicensed spectrum can be used by anyone for free; it’s what’s used for current WiFi networks, though at different frequencies than what’s being proposed.

What’s most interesting about the proposed FCC plan - and relevant to the digital divide discussion - is that the FCC is also suggesting that the newly unlicensed spectrum could be used to create powerful free WiFi networks, giving, potentially, everyone free Internet access. Since the spectrum used by TV stations is much stronger than current unlicensed spectrum, such WiFi networks would, in theory, be accessible for much longer distances than current free WiFi networks, and even through buildings and walls. The FCC envisions this newly free portion of the spectrum supporting powerful, free WiFi across the country.

Sounds good, right? Could this be the solution to the problem of kids from low income families or in rural areas not having access to broadband at home? Would this solve the problem of kids going to McDonald’s at night to do homework that requires Internet access?

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