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
Image credit: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
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?
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.