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
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
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
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