Free Public Wireless: Might not be a new idea, but that doesn’t make it a bad one.

Just a quick one today, in response to Cecilia Kang’s WaPo article on the FCC’s proposal to implement free public wireless in the United States.

As Karl Bode at points out, this is not a new proposal, but has been around since 2011, when trials for the use of White Spaces spectrum got the green light from the FCC. Nowhere does Kang claim that the proposal is new, but given the buzz around her article, Bode’s point may be a necessary reality check for some overenthusiastic readers.

Most of us are paying for cable these days (and some of us for Netflix instead), but there was a time when all TV watching was done via a great big set of bunny ears on the roof. Today there is still a respectably large portion of the population[1] relying exclusively on Over-the-Air broadcasting in North America. White Spaces (WS) were necessary as guard bands to prevent interference between analog OTA broadcast channels. When we made the switch to digital TV broadcasting (2011 in the States, 2012 in Canada), White Spaces became part of “the digital dividend”, or spectrum available for re-use due to the superior spectral efficiency and resistance to interference of digital media. White Spaces is also particularly desirable for public Wi-Fi due to favorable attenuation and data transmission characteristics. (It can travel long distances, penetrate buildings, foliage and other obstacles, and carry a decent amount of data)

The FCC has been batting around ideas trying to figure out how to best put this spectrum to use. To my knowledge, the North Carolina WS trial was mostly about “The Internet of Things” or Machine to Machine (M2M) communications – video surveillance cameras with built in remote viewing capability, scientific sensors for water and soil, etc. But there has been at least one successful trial of WS broadband in Cambridge, UK. Although not without the expected first run tribulations, the trial was widely hailed as a success and reported available speeds of 13Mbps down, 2Mbps up depending on signal strength. (page 25). Not bad for a free service provided using recycled farmervision!

Anyway, our main contenders on either side of this debate are the usual suspects. AT&T, Verizon, et al, (Rogers here in Canada), on the one hand, argue that the sky is falling and that before we open new unlicensed spectrum, won’t somebody please think of the children, and on the other we’ve got Google, Microsoft, etc, who are obviously interested in creating a larger market for their devices and services. The telco camp wants the spectrum for themselves, in the name of improving quality of service, but in reality to preemptively quash potential competition.

AT&T wants the FCC to sell them exclusive license to use this spectrum. I’m always amazed by this sort of institutional amnesia – more unlicensed spectrum may appear to be an immediate threat to the likes of AT&T, but let’s not forget that in 2007 their network was crippled by the iPhone and exploding data use. AT&T wasted no time capitalizing on the positive externalities generated by unlicensed spectrum to dig itself out of a pit it created (by exclusively licensing a device (the iPhone) that was in tremendous demand and which its network was incapable of supporting.) It’s no understatement to say that AT&T would have been up shit creek without unlicensed spectrum then, and as tacit acknowledgement of its continuing importance, AT&T continues to build Wi-Fi into their newest cellular deployments.

As I mentioned already, Microsoft and Google aren’t exactly saints either, but the fact that they are supporting this initiative should give us pause before dismissing it as more of the same old self-congratulation coming from the FCC. While Telco lobbies spend tremendous effort fighting off municipal efforts to establish publicly owned communications infrastructure, as outlined in the final chapter of Crawford’s Captive Audience, they are not always successful, and in this case Google and Apple are providing powerful opposition. Remember SOPA? A broad based grassroots internet movement stopped the MPAA’s ham handed efforts to close down the Internet through the Stop Online Piracy Act, only after giants such as Wikipedia, Google and Tumblr threw their weight behind the cause. In the case of public Wi-Fi, Google and Microsoft’s position is closely aligned with the public interest; the combination of public support and a committed segment of the industry has proven effective in the past, why write if off in the future?

Kang’s article cites another opponent, Intel, on the possibilities (or lack thereof) for WS: “As unlicensed, there would be a disincentive to invest in expensive networking equipment and provide users with optimal quality of service.” In other words, they’re comfortable making money selling equipment wholesale to incumbent service providers. This statement indicates their preference for stability over innovation and disruption. Also opposed to unlicensed use of WS, Cisco, you might remember, just dumped its interest in the Linksys brand of consumer routing equipment that uses unlicensed spectrum, in order to focus on proprietary networking gear.

The FCC has indicated that it is leaning towards a consumer-centric policy on this issue:

We want our policy to be more end-user-centric and not carrier-centric. That’s where there is a difference in opinion

I once received a quizzical look from Janet Wasko when I suggested to her that the FCC may be generally acting in good faith under Genachowski, especially given the complex intra-industry, inter-industry and public interests that it has to balance. Perhaps we should be taking consumer oriented statements such as this with a grain of salt. And the proliferation of a new protocol for wireless communication certainly won’t happen overnight. But with powerful industry backing coming from the likes of Google, and a potential groundswell of support from a public fed up with being held hostage by AT&T, we ought to not dismiss the suggestion of progressive action from regulators. Will I be waiting with bated breath for the day Apple releases a White Spaces iPhone? Not a chance. But nor have I given up on the hope that regulators are capable of progressive action, and that we may eventually have access to high quality publicly provided and curated communication services.

That’s it for now.

[1] 17% seems a little high, which isn’t much of a surprise given that this figure is coming from the National Association of Broadcasters. If I had to guess, I would say it’s probably closer to 10%.

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