Free wireless for everyone is FCC Chair’s parting wish

The departing FCC Chairman is suggesting that the US move to create a free wi-fi service for all Americans:

Outgoing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin is pushing for action in December on a plan to offer free, pornography-free wireless Internet service to all Americans, despite objections from the wireless industry and some consumer groups.

HoodaThunk? readers know my professional background – network engineer – puts me in a good position to evaluate such a suggestion. Fellow network engineers will know all too well that a host of issues has arisen from just this 1 sentence. And, trust me, they’re big, honkin’ issues at that.

First is the access to the system. The proposal apparently is tied to the auction of wireless spectra. The
winner of the auction for the frequencies being auctioned off would be
required to carve out 25% of them and use them for this free service.
The winner can use the remaining 75% of the spectra to run a paid
service that would be permitted to be faster. There’s a hitch to this,
however – the coverage has to be the same. In other words, every house
that could access the faster, paid-for service has to be able to
connect to the freebie as well. That means that the free system needs
to have an access point, an antenna, and power availability equal to
the for-fee service. The maintenance of such a system, as well as the support for the end users would be the same
as the paid-for service.

There are places in the US that don’t have wireless access right now. If the idea is to provide this to “all Americans” then access points and antenna coverage will have to increase to cover these areas which will run into the NIMBY problem the cell providers are getting today.

Second, who’s going to pay for this “free” service? The routers, switches, connecting circuits, access points, antennas, etc., don’t just grow out of the ground. They have to be bought and paid for somehow and by someone, so where’s that cash coming from? Wireless ISP’s around the country can tell you the success they have going up against wired services, so to think that people are going to make a mad dash to sign up for a paid wireless service when a free one is available is a pipe dream. And if you’re going to make the free service that much worse that you’ll flush people into getting the paid service, just how usable is the free service going to be, anyway?

Particularly during the initial roll-out there’s no way the fees paid into the paid system will cover the expense of the gear necessary to deploy what amounts to 2 redundant systems. The government has a habit of hitting the taxpayers for funding in circumstances like this. And if we start supporting such a system with public funds, it’ll be very hard to cut that off in the future. Which raises political questions of whether access to certain classes of information can be allowed at all using a public system.

And that brings up the part about the “no pornography” feature of the system. The only way they can do that is to run giant web filters on all the traffic and requests. The problems with web filters are well-known (who decides what’s pornography, for example) and they’re easily defeated. Once you start running them, however, you can hardly back down from using them. That requires an ever-increasing application of resources to stay current. It also opens up the question of who’s monitoring your browsing habits and what they’ll do with that information.

The idea of ubiquitous access is a good one, although the idea of getting this nation’s IT infrastructure up to the point where we’re offering service just half as good as the citizens of Korea and Japan are getting would be a better place to start. Giving existing ISP’s incentives to offer their service at more affordable costs and better speeds would be a far better approach than making another government agency.