As the FCC prepares to release its National Broadband Plan next week, I hope it will address expanding Wi-Fi as part of improving mobile data access. It appears no amount of repurposed radio spectrum is likely to meet the expanding wireless data demand for very long.
Universal free Wi-Fi is an idea whose time has come, not because it would be a nice thing for users but because it can reduce the need for additional radio spectrum for mobile wireless. That spectrum has proven difficult to come by and may be more expensive than offering Wi-Fi for free.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has already proposed asking broadcasters to give up 500 MHz of spectrum, worth as much as $50 billion at auction. Others have suggested that the government itself has spectrum that could be made available.
"If we get it right, broadband, and in particular mobile broadband, will be an enduring engine for creating jobs and growing our economy, for spreading knowledge and enhancing civic engagement, for advancing a healthier, sustainable way of life," Genachowski said in announcing the plan. "This is our moment. Let's seize it."
Other answers need to be considered, and more Wi-Fi is an easy one. The additional Wi-Fi could be financed, in part, with money customers pay carriers for cellular data service, much like the surcharges that already exist.
Universal Wi-Fi is consistent with the larger goal of making broadband available to every American business and home, so that even those without cellular data can enjoy the benefits of mobility, albeit in a more limited way. My hope is that someday mobile cellular (3G and 4G) will be limited to users who are actually moving or are beyond the reach of Wi-Fi hotspots.
Obviously, some of the subsidy money would go to the wired broadband providers whose networks would absorb the new Wi-Fi traffic. There would also need to be a change in current user agreements to allow this bandwidth sharing by wired broadband customers.
There are a variety of technical issues that also need to be addressed.
First, switching from cellular data to Wi-Fi must to be transparent to the user, who needs to be protected from rogue hotspots that invade privacy, steal identities, or worse. Organizations that provide bandwidth--for free--need to be able to easily control the amount of Wi-Fi bandwidth they are giving away. Most businesses, I think, would be happy to share excess bandwidth, but wouldn't want their users to experience any slowdowns as a result.
My proposal is a response to remarks made this week by former FCC Chair Kevin Martin, who said that getting as much data as possible off cellular wireless and onto Wi-Fi could reduce demand for additional radio spectrum. He also talked about the need for more fiber optic to carry broadband out to customers.
Martin remarked that finding additional spectrum for mobile wireless is proving difficult ard to come by, so reducing our need for it is a good thing.
Universal free Wi-Fi is such a natural evolution that I'm surprised it hasn't already been addressed. To wit, the FCC should require all smartphones to have Wi-Fi in addition to cellular data and to select Wi-Fi first as the data mode.
This proposal also needs to be considered in light of the move to faster 4G connections. Today, Wi-Fi is generally faster than my 3G connection, but probably won't be as fast (as least not at public locations) as 4G wireless.
Thus, we may want to provide an optional feature in the smartphone that looks at what the user is trying to do and would override the "use Wi-Fi first" setting when higher speeds were required, as for a big download or perhaps live video.
I believe paid Wi-Fi will go the way of the pay telephone. As costs come down, a free broadband connection will be expected at businesses and public locations. As for expanding free access, the private sector will do much of the work, but may require a helpful push from government to make this happen.
Having data travel wirelessly for the shortest distance possible is a great idea and fundamental to how cellular works. But as cellular networks become ever more crowded, Wi-Fi can do more to help.
As for when it should happen, tomorrow would not be soon enough.