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FCC To Vote On Free, National Wi-Fi Network

December 13, 2008

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to vote December 18 on a plan to auction off the AWS-3 wireless spectrum that will be freed up in February when television stations shift to all digital broadcasts. 

The commission would require the auction’s winner to use part of the spectrum for a national, ad-supported free wireless Internet service. The no-cost Wi-Fi service would have to be up and running within a few years of the auction, and the winning company would be required to build filters that protect minors from adult content.

However, in a rare consensus, both Democrats and the Bush administration oppose the plan.

“The administration believes that the (airwaves) should be auctioned without price or product mandate…the potential for problems increases in instances where licensing is overly prescriptive or designed around unproven business models.” Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez wrote in a letter to FCC chairman Kevin Martin, a Bush appointee, on Wednesday.

At the same time, a Reuters report says Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is expected to request that the commission delay its December 18 vote until the new Congress convenes next month.

Rockefeller, who will become chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee chairman, which oversees the FCC, wants the commission to postpone all major decisions until after the transition to digital television is complete.

Kevin Martin has said he supports the free Wi-Fi plan as a way to improve Internet access throughout the country.  Currently, the U.S. ranks 15th among developing nations for ease of high-speed Internet access.

However, free municipal Wi-Fi access has been a contentious issue in recent years, with disputes between those who favor a market-based approach vs. those who prefer government-instituted networks.

Many cities have launched, or attempted to launch, such networks.  Cambridge, Massachusetts recently launched a free Wi-Fi service in Harvard Square, while Philadelphia launched its Wi-Fi service this summer after Earthlink pulled out of the project in May. And in San Francisco, Meraki Networks resurrected a free Wi-Fi network project earlier this year after the city abandoned the initiative.

President Elect Barack Obama has also spoke of plans to broaden wireless Internet access.
 
While free Wi-Fi nationwide access would be ideal, the true challenge is not so much the cost but rather the ability to deploy high quality broadband access to rural communities.  Such areas typically rely on dial-up Internet access.

One possible solution would be to utilize WiMax technology, which can send wireless signals over distances up to 80 miles. Sprint recently launched a WiMax test project in Baltimore, but standards for widespread deployment are still many years away.

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