We had a revealing example this week, set off by an article in the Washington Post about some FCC announcements about plans to repurpose some radio spectrum that it hopes to recover from broadcasters and older cellular systems. This wasn't breaking news, at least for those following the issue - the FCC has had a goal of promoting wireless Internet access, and broadband access since the early days of the Obama administration. Plans to recover spectrum have been discussed for years, and earlier this year President Obama announced plans to use part of the spectrum for a national broadband service (and part for expanding bandwidth available for public service and emergency uses). There's also been discussions of expanding bandwidth for localized "public" WiFi uses. And of course, broadcasters and telecomm (cellular) operators have opposed FCC proposals to grab back valuable spectrum (which would also limit their ability to expand services or offer new services in the future).
Here's the Post lede:
The federal government wants to create super WiFi networks across the nation, so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month. The proposal from the Federal Communications Commission has rattled the $178 billion wireless industry, which has launched a fierce lobbying effort to persuade policymakers to reconsider the idea, analysts say.This led to an outbreak of stories about the FCC building a nationwide free WiFi network. While the lede doesn't directly say that, you could consider that folks who don't know the difference between wireless, WiFi, WiMax, and wireless broadband, or know that the FCC only sets standards and assigns frequencies and has no specific authority to operate telecommunications systems, might jump to the wrong conclusion. So there was a day or two of stories flying around about the FCC's "Free WiFi" plans before those who actually knew what was going on started debunking the wilder claims.
But the problem wasn't just the jumping to wild conclusions - the basic lede is also wrong. The government wasn't proposing to create networks; instead the reporter seems to have mixed elements of two separate proposals. One was to dedicate some (hoped-for) bandwidth to a specific use - the development of a national wireless broadband network; the other was to allow WiFi to operate in the "white spaces" of existing TV spectrum.
In the wireless broadband proposal, the FCC would create a new telecommunication service, national wireless broadband, and dedicate some bandwidth to be used exclusively for that service. The FCC would set up standards, define markets, and create licenses that would be auctioned off to groups who would build the network and offer the service - most likely commercially. There's been no serious consideration of having the FCC actually build and run the service - although there is likely to be some subsidization involved. Furthermore, the technically-inclined know that WiFi isn't a good way to provide widespread wireless broadband access - it can offer the raw bandwidth, but that bandwidth is shared with other users, and the range of the signal is fairly low. There's a long history of cities trying free WiFi networks in neighborhoods, and educational institutions offering WiFi across campus - not with a lot of success. Free, open-to-the-public large area WiFi is quickly overloaded, so most of those found that they needed to limit access. In the meantime, there are alternative wireless broadband technologies available. True 4G cellular offers wireless broadband, as do some of the newer satellite-based data services, and the new WiMax2 standard (there's a couple of others also being discussed of questionable technical viability). Between the desire to maximize auction revenues, and the significant infrastructure costs that would be involved, there's little chance that any resulting service would be "free." In addition, while many of the concerns being voiced are coming from big telecomm, they're more about the spectrum grab that will be used to provide the bandwidth for the new service, the need for a totally new service when viable services already exist, and whether the subsidies being talked about might not be used more effectively at expanding those into less economically-viable areas, or subsidizing service costs.
The WiFi "white space" proposal is quite different. Existing WiFi operates in "public" bandwidth - parts of the spectrum that the FCC has opened for the public to use on an "as available" basis. Use of those frequencies for WiFi do not require licenses from the FCC, but they also don't guarantee availability. Rapid diffusion of WiFi, and other authorized uses for that spectrum, has led to some overcrowding and slowed data rates in high-traffic areas. Since the authorized uses are low-power and highly localized (20-35 meter diameter for WiFi), the FCC is considering allowing WiFi to use what is called "white space." White space refers to areas where the primary licensee's signal is weak or doesn't reach. Broadcasters on the same, or adjacent, channels have to be a certain distance apart so that they don't interfere with one another. As a result, there are a lot of channels in communities where there is no existing signal. The FCC is considering letting WiFi, which already searches for available channels within currently designated bands, to also search for available "white space" in the TV bands and use those if they were currently unused. The TV industry, in response, has voiced concerns about their part of the spectrum grab, and the possibility that the low-power WiFi could create some signal interference for the primary licensed signal. Opening up the white space would expand the usable bandwidth for the "public" WiFi service and expand the overall capacity of WiFi. But it wouldn't specifically make it public in the sense of freely available or noncommercial, and it certainly wouldn't have any impact of costs.
There's nothing in either specifically addressing IP telephony or Internet surfing in these plans. And while the moves may help expand wireless and allow Net access via methods other than mobile cellular, at some point those wireless options connect to wired gateways, and someone is paying for that connection. There's no free lunch implied or promised. Even with subsidies or mandated service access, someone is paying - you're just shifting the cost burden elsewhere.
As for lobbying, yes there's some - but it's not all that fierce or directed in the way suggested in the article. The reporter, in fact, bases this on the concerns of "some analysts," and fails to identify any specific corporate or telecomm lobbying effort. Even the concerns of "consumer advocates" is false - when it comes to cellphones and Internet access, the poor often have greater access and use than wealthier demographics. (While they may not "afford it", they do end up using it).
Journalists really should become better informed and less credulous, particularly when some group is pushing a story or meme. All this hyperbole and jumping to conclusions isn't helping their credibility.
Source: There Is No FCC Plan for Free Super Wi-Fi, Slate.com
Tech, telecomm giants take sides as FCC proposes large public WiFi networks, Washington Post