False reports of proposed free 'super Wi-Fi' set Internet abuzz

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 5 2013 1:50 p.m. MST

Internet news sources lit up early this week after a Washington Post story claimed Sunday that the Federal Communication Commission plans to set up a free public "super Wi-Fi" network.

"The story is almost entirely fiction," said economist Jeffrey Eisenach, who has served in senior positions at the Federal Trade Commission.

In a post on the American Enterprise Institute's website, Eisenach explained that the FCC passed a plan in 2010 that would set up the government as a "third party auctioneer" to transfer unused broadband spectrum from TV broadcasters to wireless carriers.

One of the reasons for this incentive auction was to allow wireless providers to keep up with the increasing needs of their customers, according to Eisenach.

"The FCC has not proposed large public Wi-Fi networks, and the only 'taking of sides' going on is over highly technical issues associated with how to carry off planned incentive auctions, which are designed to transfer 120 MHz of broadcast television spectrum to wireless broadband providers, who need it to meet exploding demand," he said.

A "super Wi-Fi" network is a possible future innovation; it just won't be built by the government, and it won't be free.

According to the FCC, part of the spectrum freed up by the FCC will be available for unlicensed use and can be used for free for devices like garage door openers and Wi-Fi routers. A wireless provider can build a stronger Wi-Fi network, sometimes referred to as "super Wi-Fi," with "white space" signals that use lower frequencies than traditional Wi-Fi, so they can travel faster and farther.

“The FCC’s incentive auction proposal, launched in September of last year, would unleash substantial spectrum for licensed uses like 4G LTE. 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," FCC spokesman Neil Grace said to Venture Beat.

While the government has allocated that unlicensed spectrum for private investors, the FCC has never announced plans to use it to create a national network, according to our research.

Wireless engineer Steven Crowley says that whoever builds these innovative Wi-Fi networks will have to spend money on the equipment needed to build a Wi-Fi network, so it wouldn't make sense that they would provide a large, powerful network for free.

"It would cost money, so I don't see a path toward ubiquitous free Wi-Fi that is at an acceptable quality level," Crowley told ArsTechnica.

So-called super Wi-Fi "may be the best business case, but that doesn't mean it's easy to make it a business," Crowley said.

The Washington Post article may have resulted from a misunderstanding of the FCC recently taking comments on the process behind the spectrum auctions.

Wireless providers responded, restating their stance that spectrum should be allocated to individual carriers and not to private entities. The Post article referred to this statement as "fierce lobbying effort" to dissuade the government from this non-existent Wi-Fi network proposal.

Google and Microsoft issued a joint statement supporting the auctions and urging the FCC to allocate enough unlicensed spectrum to support innovation, preserve some white spaces among TV broadcast bands, and establish new rules for wireless microphone operations.

The Post further misunderstood by rephrasing Google and Microsoft's statement and wrote that "a free-for-all Wi-Fi service would spark an explosion of innovations and devices that would benefit most Americans, especially the poor."

A close look at the statement shows that it is referring to spectrum auctions and freeing up unlicensed spectrum for innovation, but it says nothing about wanting a free government-created Wi-Fi network.

"The proposal exists only in the rich imaginations of a handful of cyber-socialists, who just can’t come to terms with the fact that America’s largely market-based communications policies are working, and instead see broadband as the next battlefield in the progressive war against private ownership," Eisenach said. "There’s a lot we can argue with the Obama administration about — but so far, nationalizing the Internet doesn’t seem to be on the list."

EMAIL: kardmore@deseretnews.com, Twitter: KatieArdmore

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