Free Federal Wireless Broadband For All Americans? Fuggedaboutit!

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John Gress / REUTERS

Federal Communication Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski pauses as he speaks at the Cable Show in Chicago, June 15, 2011.

The United States government is not going to be providing free WiFi Internet access to consumers anytime soon. That news may surprise anyone who read a startling Washington Post story on Sunday, which seemed to confuse a fairly esoteric telecom policy proposal about the use of so-called “white space” wireless spectrum with some sort of free national wireless Internet access plan.

The “free WiFi for all” story, which was passed around uncritically by Internet blogs and news sites, set off a furor because the notion cuts to the heart of ongoing battles over access to the Internet, the “digital divide,” and federal policy decisions that could have major implications for the telecom, cable, and technology industries. But the story was wrong, as Ars Technica pointed out.

On Tuesday, outlets that repeated the bunk story began walking their reports back, in some cases apologizing for giving bad information to the public. The episode, which provoked a strong pushback from tech experts across the political spectrum, illustrates the perils journalists face when they uncritically re-print or “aggregate” information too hastily.

Here’s the background: As part of the broadcast television industry transition from analog to digital signals, key wireless spectrum has become available. Wireless spectrum refers to the frequencies that are used by TV, radio, cell phones, satellite, and other devices. This spectrum is extremely valuable — worth billions of dollars — because it’s what enables Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless to make your smartphones and other mobile devices work.

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For several years, the Federal Communications Commission has been trying to figure out what to do with so-called “white spaces,” which are the slivers of wireless spectrum between the old analog TV channels. Everyone in the technical community has known that this spectrum would eventually become available when the TV industry transitioned from analog to digital. For years, the government has been jockeying with the major broadcasters, cable companies, telecom firms, and public interest groups about how best to allocate this spectrum.

The FCC’s proposed solution is to hold what’s known as an “incentive auction” for frequencies in the 600 MHz band, in which TV broadcasters would be induced to sell their white space slivers in a competitive bidding process. Some of the proceeds from the auction would reimburse the broadcasters for giving up these spectrum slivers — hence the term “incentive.” In exchange, some of this newly freed spectrum would become available for use by the public on an unlicensed basis, for things like WiFi.

Unlicensed spectrum refers to the “free” airwaves used for things like your Bluetooth headset, TV remote, or garage door opener, as opposed to licensed spectrum, which is designated for things like radio stations and military satellites. Licensed spectrum would also be sold in the auction. Unlike the unlicensed spectrum currently used for WiFi, however, the “white spaces” under discussion in the 600 MHz band are much more powerful, and can penetrate building walls and travel far greater distances. For this reason, this spectrum has been dubbed “super WiFi.” (For a more technical discussion of the proposed spectrum auction, please see Mike Masnick’s post over at Techdirt.)

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Telecom policy is a notoriously complex and politically charged issue, and the FCC’s process can be frustratingly opaque at times. The reason that the Washington Post story struck a nerve is that policy-makers and experts are grappling with how to improve and expand broadband Internet access for Americans, especially in the poorest and most remote areas, where the so-called “digital divide” is acute. As Susan Crawford, the respected tech policy expert and professor at Cardozo Law School, observed in her new book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Guilded Age, American consumers have fewer choices for broadband service, at higher prices but lower speeds, compared to dozens of other developed countries, including throughout Europe and Asia.

Everyone agrees that U.S. broadband service needs to be faster and more ubiquitous. As Crawford writes, “Internet access is as basic to innovation, economic growth, social communication, and the country’s competitiveness as electricity was a century ago.” The key question is how to accomplish this goal.

The ongoing, years-long policy debate about the future of broadband Internet service helps explain the furor unleashed by the Post’s story, which some writers interpreted to mean that the FCC plans to use this highly valuable white spaces spectrum to create “free” next-generation wireless networks across the country. If the federal government offered free public WiFi — assuming it could afford to do such a thing, which it can’t — that would radically upend the multi-billion-dollar telecom model. Industry giants like AT&T and Verizon would oppose such a plan with every means at their disposal.

Although the Post seemed to suggest the idea is a “new” plan, tech policy experts have been debating and planning for the disposition of white spaces for years. In fact, the FCC is not planning to hold this spectrum auction until 2014, and that’s only if the agency can induce the broadcasters to give up this highly valuable property, which is not a foregone conclusion. Moreover, the Post did not explain who would pay for the buildout and management of this new wireless service. The federal government is not going to pay for it — the FCC simply wants to make the spectrum available — which means that either state and local governments or some deep-pocketed private entity will have to bear the cost.

As Cecilia Kang, the Washington Post reporter who wrote the original story, explained in a follow-up post, freeing up white spaces spectrum is not a new idea. She pointed out that the FCC has yet to vote even on the rules to govern the auction, which, again, will not occur until next year at the earliest.

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Nevertheless, numerous web writers misinterpreted the Post’s report, adding breathlessly sexy headlines such as “FCC Proposes Free WiFi For Everyone In The U.S.” The story hurtled around the Internet largely unchecked, until experienced journalists cried foul. (The pushback was led by Karl Bode, the veteran telecom policy writer at DSL Reports, and Jon Brodkin, the veteran tech policy reporter at Ars Technica.)

“The Washington Post ‘broke’ the news, and it burst out like a genetically engineered T-virus, picked up and repeated across a number of sites even as it was being aggressively debunked by various experts,” technology journalist and former editor Evan Hansen wrote in a sharp post on Medium. “The problem? The news had nothing to do with a new plan to provide Americans with free WiFi, but rather a long-standing plan to make so-called White Spaces spectrum, currently controlled by TV broadcasters, available for unlicensed uses.”

The debate over U.S. broadband policy is complex and highly charged, not only because of the billions of dollars at stake, but because we’re talking about the future of America’s communications infrastructure. Around the world, governments and industry giants are racing to improve broadband speed and access. This is particularly important in the United States, where tens of millions of citizens — mostly in the poorest and most rural communities — don’t have access to affordable broadband service.

The FCC should be commended for moving to make valuable white spaces spectrum available for uses that could include superfast and powerful wireless service. It’s certainly tempting to think that the forthcoming spectrum auction could lead to “free public WiFi,” and given the complexity of the issue it’s understandable that some writers drew that conclusion from the Post’s story. But, alas, it’s simply not the case.