Spoutin' Off: Free Wi-Fi access for all is good idea
By Michael E. Rau
May 29 2006
I was reading an article a few days ago about a California company's idea for creating a system providing free high-speed wireless Internet access nationwide, and I thought it worth considering, as well as taking the opportunity to issue a brief progress report on the state of free wireless access here in Hampton Roads.
First, let's talk about what the company I mentioned - M2Z Networks - has proposed. They want the FCC to allocate a specific spectrum of radio frequencies for the purpose of enabling the establishment of free high-speed wireless Internet networks from coast-to-coast.
Now, keep in mind that your federal government technically owns and controls all access to radio frequencies. They, in turn, assign specific ranges of the radio-frequency spectrum to dedicated purposes, such as commercial radio and TV broadcasts, cell phones, emergency services, military communications, and so on.
Thus, they can take a chunk of that, and dedicate it to anything they choose.
One way the government raises revenue these days is by auctioning off the rights to specific frequencies to commercial enterprises for their use. In fact, those guys are absolutely salivating at the prospect of having all the analog frequencies, currently allocated for commercial television, becoming available for them to sell (or otherwise) once the transition to digital TV is complete in 2008.
What M2Z wants is for the FCC to take one range of those frequencies, and essentially provide rights and access to them, at little or no cost, to anyone who wishes to use them to provide free wireless Internet access anywhere.
So, what are the implications? Well, in theory, I'd think it would create opportunities that currently don't exist for communities without commercially hard-wired broadband Internet service to acquire a usable equivalent.
This, however, opens up a huge can of worms with commercial providers such as Verizon, Cox, and Charter. These big companies have little interest in smaller communities because the balance between outlay for infrastructure and profit potential is much less attractive than in larger metropolitan areas.
If those smaller communities wanted to set up a free wireless high-speed Internet access system, it's no skin off of the big boys' butts. But just try to bring such service into a larger market where the commercial providers are currently invested, and they're not going to be happy. They've become very comfortable with having little or no competition. That not everyone can afford to pay $40 or $50 a month just isn't their problem.
Additionally, the feds aren't going to be particularly keen on giving up the potential revenue from selling access to those frequencies. Such reticence could be soothed through pressure from the electorate.
Some industry analysts have said they think the chances of the FCC going along with this are slim and none - not with all that money at stake.
But I believe that, with access to the Internet becoming such an ubiquitous part of American life, both personal and professional, those communities that want access and don't have what it takes to draw the interest of commercial Internet investment, can provide the impetus for motivating the government to be a good custodian of the public welfare, and not just another profit-generation machine.
I don't know how such an endeavor would affect a company like the Free Wi-Fi Project. This is the company that's been working hard to provide free wireless access to many areas of Hampton and Newport News (as well as nearby Elizabeth City and the Outer Banks).
There are a couple of differences. First, while the Free Wi-Fi Project provides free wireless Internet access, it is a for-profit enterprise, generating revenue from a banner ad at the top of its access page (a perfectly acceptable business model). They also don't provide high-speed service (although I'm sure they're thinking along those lines in the long term).
If the FCC creates a free high-speed Wi-Fi spectrum, I don't know if companies with a for-profit model would be given access, or if it would be limited to not-for-profit entities and government agencies.
We'll just have to see how this all shakes out.
Meanwhile, free wireless access in Hampton Roads grows at somewhat of a snail's pace. There are a few more locations in the area since the last time we checked, but this region is way behind many others. (In contrast, Richmond has been on the leading edge of this movement from the beginning).
Conversely, there are lots more private Wi-Fi signals out there as people set up individual wireless networks in their homes and businesses. Just remember - tapping into a signal, while not technically illegal, is rather bad etiquette.
One more note of interest - as New Orleans is gradually rebuilt in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, urban planners working on the project had the foresight to factor wireless Internet access into the new infrastructure.
Out of the rubble, there are lessons to be learned.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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