Should the U.S. Roll Out Free Nationwide Wi-Fi? It Depends on Which Administration You Ask.

By  |  Thursday, December 11, 2008 at 4:47 pm

The lame duck Bush administration is flapping its wings in opposition to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) free, national wireless Internet plan. Meanwhile, U.S. President- elect Obama is assembling a team to execute a plan to broaden the availability of high speed Internet access in the United States.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the White House stands in opposition to the FCC’s proposal to auction off the U.S. airwaves (formerly used for terrestrial television) for a nationwide wireless broadband service. Under the plan, the winner of the auction would be required to roll out a nationwide service on a dedicated portion of those airwaves within a specified number of years. Outgoing FCC chairman Kevin Martin, appointed by President Bush, is an advocate of the plan.

But the Journal says that the administration is at odds with its FCC appointee: It believes that the winner of the spectrum auction should not be beholden to a price or product mandate. Given the failure of other municipal Wi-Fi projects, I would hope that the FCC has does its homework and has come up with a model that works. But I hope the plan doesn’t die because it falls short of perfection.

The United States presently ranks 15th in broadband Internet access, behind many other developed nations. Frankly, I am not surprised: The country is large and the population is widely dispersed geographically, from major cities to rural areas, from sea to shining sea.

Case in point: My brother’s home in rural Michigan is out of range of cable providers, and his options for Internet access are very limited. His only option is a satellite service that is expensive and slow. Other people in his community that do not have the means to pay for that service are stuck using dial up.

Some access would be better than none–even if it was initially limited to schools and other public buildings. There is virtually no place that TV signals don’t reach, so the FCC”s plan may be a cost-effective solution.

Logistics aside, it doesn’t help that a small number of U.S. phone and cable companies have their own fiefdoms in many communities. My previous apartment home was in Philadelphia: Comcast is the only game in town for high-speed service. I have to contend with Time Warner cable at my apartment in Manhattan; Verizon FIOS is not yet available in my area.

Other nations have private/public partnerships where government and industry have cooperated to lay cables and equipment that are used by multiple providers, according to a report by National Public Radio. Nothing would please me more than to dump Time Warner, and I wish there was more competition in New York.

Thankfully, the political hand ringing about network neutrality seems to be over– at least for the time being. After all, it’s simple: the Internet is just a series of tubes.

With Senator Tubes possibly on his way to the big house, change may be forthcoming. President-Elect Obama has pledged to make broadening access to high speed Internet a princiapl part of his economic stimulus plan. As I mentioned, he’s assembling a team to accomplish that goal. If the Obama plan is well thought out and effectively administered, it could very well make broadband Internet access universal. (I still mourn the failure of municipal Wi-Fi in Philadelphia.)

I attempted to reach a contact that has close ties to the Obama transition team, but was not able to do so before deadline. If the plan derives from the FCC’s plan, it would certainly be a great experiment in public/private partnerships, and I hope that would benefit people and communities. Broadband access for all is a good thing, just like electrification was decades ago.

 
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5 Comments For This Post

  1. joecab Says:

    I don’t trust anyone to get national Wi-Fi right, so I really don’t care, and will stick with getting it where I can. It’s less of an issue now that I carry around an iPhone in lieu of a laptop a lot more.

  2. thehumanyawn Says:

    I care. I get free internet, and when I think of the days of hopping from dial-up provider to dial-up provider using the free hours on the disks, I cringe. In this age, internet is just as important as electricity, and the government better not back out once the network’s been set up. Luckily, the radios should be plenty cheap because of NTSC’s age, so the government could probably do something similar with wireless broadband like they’re doing with the DTV transition: provide coupons to those who request them, but also give them away to people who wouldn’t be able to afford one even with a coupon. This WILL work.

  3. Speedmaster Says:

    When we say ‘free,’ what do we really mean? Who pays for this?

  4. nadia Says:

    I think it’s a great idea for people to have more access to the Web. I’ve been glued to my lap top for job hunting, learning how to market my blog and checking my email constantly. It would definitely help me to have easier access to the Web, without looking for hot spots. Companies, such as Portland-based Clear, (www.clear.com/?utm_source=bc) are already providing similar services at an affordable cost. I think Obama is really progressing with the masses and I can’t wait for the change.

  5. MrZack Says:

    “Virtually” is the key word in “virtually no place that TV signals don’t reach.” Living in rural Alabama (Cleburne county) means that I depend on satellite for TV (unless I want to watch fuzzy channel 7 PBS) and internet (because we don’t even have dial-up ISPs with local access numbers in our little corner of Hell, let alone cable or DSL.) Oh, and no cell phone signal with anything other than AT&T.

    So some infrastructure upgrades might need to be made because, no, TV signals don’t reach here.