FCC's Free Wi-Fi Plan: Will it Fly?

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It seems that some Democrats and the Bush administration have finally found something to agree on: opposition to the FCC’s free Wi-Fi plan. On December 18, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on a proposal that would auction off the AWS-3 wireless spectrum that becomes available in February 2009 after television stations go all digital. The winner of the spectrum would be required to use part of it for a national, ad-supported free wireless Internet service. The free Wi-Fi would have to be implemented within a few years of winning the auction and requires the company to construct filters that protect minors from adult content.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez sent a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin on Wednesday declaring the White House’s opposition to the plan, according to The Wall Street Journal. "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." Mr. Guttierrez wrote.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Jay Rockefeller, a Democratic Senator from West Viriginia, is expected to ask the FCC to delay the December 18 vote until the new Congress convenes next month. Rockefeller will become the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee—the committee that oversees the FCC—in the new Congress. The senator wants the FCC to delay any other major decisions until after the switch over to digital television is finished.

Kevin Martin, a Bush appointee, favors the free Wi-Fi plan and improving Internet access across the country—the U.S. is currently ranked 15th among developing nations for ease of high-speed Internet access.

Free municipal Wi-Fi has been a contentious issue for the last few years, with collisions between political visions of a market-based approach and government-instituted networks. Cambridge, Massachusetts recently launched a free Wi-Fi network in Harvard Square. Philadelphia’s municipal Wi-Fi was resurrected over the summer after Earthlink abandoned the project in May, and San Francisco’s Wi-Fi project was taken over by Meraki Networks earlier this year.

Free Wi-Fi across the country would be ideal, and Barack Obama’s administration also has plans to widen wireless access. However, the real problem is not so much free Wi-Fi as getting quality, broadband access to rural communities that currently rely on dial-up. A possible solution would be a WiMax network, which can send wireless signals over a maximum distance of 80 miles. Sprint recently launched a WiMax test project in Baltimore, but it will be several years before the standard is ready for widespread distribution.

Whatever the outcome of December 18, one thing the public can count on is for those in Washington to bicker endlessly about how to solve the most important communications issue of the decade.

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