Free Wi-Fi proposal will face a fight

15 February 2013
By Paul Dempsey
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Julius Genachowski is challenging mobile networks

Julius Genachowski is challenging mobile networks

As dropped bombshells go, it’s one of those that merits the term.

The Federal Communications Commission is discussing a plan to deliver free Wi-Fi access throughout the US.

Not to be confused with another recently announced FCC plan to free more spectrum to meet increasing demand for data, commissioner Julius Genachowski’s latest idea looks like as direct a challenge to mobile networks as you can get.

The free network would not merely give universal access to data services but also carry VoIP calls nationwide, for example.

Private operators who have paid billions in spectrum auctions over the years are unimpressed. However, Microsoft and Google have buried their historic rivalry to back the plan. Both have services that would obviously benefit.

Google already offers a public Wi-Fi network across much of Silicon Valley, and Microsoft’s portable devices have struggled to gain traditional cellular market share.

In the middle are many of the infrastructure suppliers, though Intel has come out as clearly against.

Largely, though, they’ve been caught on the sidelines. On one hand, the plan would result in an enormous order; on the other, it could slaughter the capex plans of existing private sector customers.

Genachowski is also framing the idea in a controversial way. Spectrum for the federal Wi-Fi network would come from that released by the US move to digital TV broadcasts.

Given the state of the economy, many would prefer this to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

The plan then reignites the great debate over the Internet as either a public resource or a market-driven economy.

Remember, though, that so far this is just a proposal. And one leaked in rather typical DC style. At the start of any new administrative term a few ideas get punted. Some go forward. Some get quickly shelved.

The Washington Post was given a tip. And Genachowski confirmed the plan was being considered. But for now, not a great deal more. The FCC’s full board has yet to vote on the idea.

The busy industry responses nevertheless suggest more going on than mere kite-flying. Specifically, both the operators and their services rivals seemed less than surprised, suggesting discussions have been underway for a while.

There is a lot to resolve. It’s hard to see businesses deserting commercial networks for a free one that could easily become congested. Many private users may feel the same.

Genachowski does not envisage ‘quality of service’ standard performance, rather something for the casual user. So, just how much would the plan undermine the private operators?

Similarly, the US – and much of the rest of the world – is about to see a new generation of machine-to-machine applications come into play.

Given that many of these are in safety-critical fields such as automotive and medical, pushing less ‘important’ traffic onto a shared public network could make sense.

And then, Genachowski may well be trying to poke network owners. They have been repeatedly criticised by consumers over reliability.

Each new iWhatsit launch is accompanied by complaints that the infrastructure can’t cope with the new functions on offer. So, there may be an ‘Or else’ element.

Finally, though, while you can be sure that free, ubiquitous Internet access will play well with the public, whether it happens or not may come down to who is smarter at lobbying Washington and the political community beyond the FCC.

There, for now, my money is still on the networks – but we may have a really fun fight on our hands. 

More important, this could push the debate over next generation datacomms into the open at last.

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