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

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In theory, yes. However, there are some significant roadblocks along the way to the FCC’s grand vision:

Wireless carriers are already fighting it. While companies like AT&T and Verizon are in favor of the FCC selling them additional spectrum for their own networks, they’re not in favor of a significant portion of the spectrum being left unlicensed for free Internet access (which could then be used to also make calls for free). They’re already lobbying the FCC to maximize the licensed portion of the newly freed spectrum.

Who will pay for the these new WiFi networks? Even if a significant portion of newly freed spectrum is made unlicensed, the WiFi networks still need to be set up and supported. Cities could choose to do so, as could companies. Google and Microsoft have already come out in support of the FCC’s plan which makes sense: more free WiFi means more people buying devices to access those networks. While it seems likely that large cities would have the resources to create such networks, or that a Google may even foot the bill for densely populated regions, what about rural areas? Would small towns or school districts be able to afford the costs of creating these networks? Some yes, others undoubtedly no.

What will the quality of these new WiFi networks be like? Even if the spectrum is freed and the networks created, how reliable will they be? Everybody acknowledges that they won’t be as robust as those offered by the wireless companies, who have more spectrum and incentive to maintain the service. How congested will they become? While the new networks would, in theory, be much stronger than existing WiFi networks, will these new networks be so popular that they quickly become clogged? Too hard to say at this point.

In short, if the FCC’s vision came to fruition, there’s no doubt that some kids currently on the wrong side of digital divide would benefit. But they would most likely be the ones living in urban areas where cities have the resources and incentive to create the networks. Kids living in rural areas may still be out of luck. Of course, all the free WiFi in the world is useless if you can’t afford a computer, tablet or smartphone to access it.

But it’s a very interesting proposal; we'll see how it plays out.

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