Cecilia Kang Is Right: There Really Could Be A Free National WiFi Network (of Networks)

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This past week, we’ve had quite the discussion around Cecilia Kang’s WashPo piece describing a plan by the FCC to create a national WiFi network by making the right decisions on the “TV whitespaces” (TVWS), the unused, high-quality frequencies between broadcast TV stations. As Kang describes, the FCC’s opening of sufficient spectrum for TVWS could lead to “super WiFi networks (emphasis added) around the nation so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the internet without paying a cell phone bill every month.”

Although the article initially faced a great deal of skepticism, Kang's claims are not as far fetched as they appeared.  In fact, if the FCC makes the right spectrum choices, it is reasonable to assume (although not inevitable) that we will eventually get to the kind of ubiquitous and easy to use publicly accessible WiFi access Kang describes in her article.

Focus on the “Free WiFi” Stuff

No doubt this seems an odd prediction, given the considerable delight some took in debunking the story as too good to be true. But what Kang actually predicts is that the availability of a sufficient amount of unlicensed spectrum for WiFi in the TVWS will create stronger, more powerful versions of today’s WiFi hotspots.

Because the TVWS allows you to send signals more easily through solid objects, like walls, and allows the signal to go further for the same amount of power than today's WiFi signals, a collection of open hotspots could — collectively — cover an entire city. 

While this would not replace today's home internet connections, for people stuck doing homework at McDonald's to get internet access when the library closes, it looks like a pretty good deal.

We Are Already Half-Way There

What most people who scoff at this idea seem to miss is that we are already halfway there. As noted above, we already have a free national WiFi network. We call it “McDonald’s.”

McDonald’s if not offering free WiFi in a fit of corporate altruism. McDonald’s offers WiFi access for free because it brings in the customers and it isn’t that expensive to do. Every kid stuck doing homework at McDonald’s because they can’t afford broadband access at home is much more likely to order a soda and/or fries than kids who don’t have to come to McDonald’s to do homework.

It is no more crazy for McDonald’s (or many other businesses) to offer free WiFi access than it is to offer free “bathroom access” as part of our “national bathroom network.” McDonald’s has running water coming into the restaurant. It needs to maintain a bathroom, and customers are more likely to come to a McDonald’s with an easily accessible bathroom than if McDonald’s did not have one or if they had pay-for-access stalls. Some folks just duck in and use the bathroom without even buying coffee. But the cost of excluding such “free riders” exceeds the benefit of offering a bathroom.

If McDonald’s doesn’t suit your fancy, we also have a national municipal WiFi network. We call it “the library.” Most libraries have free WiFi. After the library closes, the WiFi footprint may extend out into the parking lot, giving kids more options for places to do homework. We actually do subsidize this, with something called “E-Rate,” which brings connectivity to our local libraries and schools. Some of that sometimes leaks out.

Of course, none of this stuff works seamlessly like a carrier does. But it’s free and available and — as the internet itself proved a long time ago — “best efforts” and dirt cheap often trumps carrier quality and much more expensive.

Putting It All Together

So let us now extrapolate from existing trend lines. WiFi is a product of two things, open “unlicensed” spectrum available as the necessary input, and freely available open standards from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Adding two additional elements – software that makes connecting to hotspots seamless and better spectrum from the TVWS – should produce exactly the kind of ‘poor man’s public WiFi network’ described by Kang in the article. All of the objections about “who will provide the backhaul” and “how will this get financed” get solved the way they are solved today — by a bunch of individual actors each contributing their own resource for their own reason and deriving their own benefit from doing so.

A Best Efforts “Network of WiFi Access Networks”

It is critical to remember that we are not talking about a single, carrier-grade WiFi network. This isn’t going to be some Verizon-like entity or Google-like entity or some National Federal Network. What we are talking about is a best efforts combination of independent networks, made cooperative by voluntary use of common protocols. A patchwork “network of networks” if you will.

Like the internet.

Some of us are old enough to remember when the idea of millions of independent networks voluntarily agreeing to exchange best efforts traffic would become a meaningful global medium of communications was laughed at, sneered and scorned by the carrier world and the Collective Wisdom generally. And yet the idea of self-organizing networks, where each individual network contributes some resource because it derives benefit of some sort from the contribution, happens every day.

Conclusion

What Kang describes, a saturation of powerful and open WiFi access points sufficient enough to make a basic level of internet access available free to anyone with the right handheld device — does not require any magic. It does not require investment of billions of dollars. It does not require federal support (other than access to the needed unlicensed spectrum) or some giant entity like Google to run it and manage it. By simply extrapolating from existing trends, opening up sufficient unlicensed TVWS spectrum has the advantage of enabling “free WiFi for the masses,” to quote Kang.

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