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Free national Wi-Fi? Pardon me not holding my breath.

In today's Wall Street Journal, reporter Amy Schatz writes that a proposal to create a free, national wireless Internet service got a boost after Federal Communications Commission engineers "concluded that concerns are overblown about such service interfering with other carriers."Which is all well and good, except that interference just doesn't seem to be the hurdle I expect needs jumping.
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Written by Andrew Nusca, Former editor on

Bryant Park NYC Wi-FiIn today's Wall Street Journal, reporter Amy Schatz writes that a proposal to create a free, national wireless Internet service got a boost after Federal Communications Commission engineers "concluded that concerns are overblown about such service interfering with other carriers."

Which is all well and good, except that interference just doesn't seem to be the hurdle I expect needs jumping. Rather, I think politics and bureaucratic red tape are going to start driving the nail into this plan, with the final strike thanks to our latest economic recession (yes, it's a recession).

According to the article, the report clears the way for the FCC to move forward with a plan to auction off airwaves to a bidder who agrees to offer free, national wireless Internet service. The FCC is expected to finalize rules this year and could begin auctioning off airwaves in early-to-mid 2009.

There's been a minor kerfuffle between FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and T-Mobile USA, which uses airwaves that abut the chunk of spectrum that's set to be auctioned off, having bought its spectrum for about $4 billion a few years ago. The way they see if, the service would disrupt the company's (not free) 3G wireless network.

FCC engineers said recent tests in Seattle showed the airwaves could be used for a wireless broadband service "without a significant risk of harmful interference."

But the real problem with this plan, in my opinion, is the reality of actually getting it done. Two years ago, start-up M2Z asked the FCC to give it a national 25 megahertz block of airwaves to build a national wireless Internet network, saying it could pay for the build-out via advertising and a subscription-based plan for consumers willing to pay more for faster service.

Two years later, we're still waiting -- and that's not even considering the strict goals that the proposed network would have to reach 50 percent of the U.S. population in four years and 95 percent within a decade.

Look, I'm as optimistic as the next guy, and I really love the idea of a blanket of national, widespread Wi-Fi, much less free.  But if we can't get such a plan going in Houston, San Francisco, Philadelphia or New York, just how are we going to justify doing it to the whole country? Much less monetize it?

In a 2005 article, CNET's Marguerite Reardon asks: "Philadelphia is venturing into the Wi-Fi frontier and liking what it sees. The big question is, will it feel the same way two years from now?"

Well, we're almost at 2009, and it's not looking that fantastic. Then again, WiMax, anyone?

What do you think: Is free national Wi-Fi a go, or am I barking up the wrong tree? Tell me in TalkBack.

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