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Sorry, the Government Is Not Creating Free Nationwide Wi-Fi Networks

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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You would be forgiven for thinking that the U.S. government just announced a plan to build a free public Wi-Fi system. After the Washington Post ran a front-page story on Monday morning that began “The federal government wants to create super WiFi networks across the nation, so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month,” others picked up on the incredible story. “FCC Proposes Free WiFi For Everyone In The U.S.” trumpeted Popular Science (referring to the Federal Communications Commission). “The FCC Wants to Blanket the Country in Free Wi-Fi” read Motherboard. Blogs went wild over the prospect of a nationwide network that would allow people to get online from wherever they are with no monthly bill.

Unfortunately, none of this is true. The government is not going to build a nationwide super-Wi-Fi system. The FCC does want to reclaim part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is held by television broadcasters—spectrum that the switch to digital TV has made obsolete. It wants to buy that spectrum back from the television companies and free it for other so-called “unlicensed” uses. It’s the digital equivalent of the government purchasing a plot of unused land and turning it into a national park—free to use but left undeveloped.

What would it take for a nationwide Wi-Fi system to actually be built? The unused spectrum is necessary, but not sufficient. Someone would have to come along and actually construct the system—the broadcast towers, the wiring, the routers, the electronics. Someone would have to connect this physical infrastructure to the Internet’s backbone. Someone would have to manage the traffic on the network just as surely as AT&T currently manages its network. In short, someone would have to invest a ton of money into building and operating a giant Wi-Fi network. The Washington Post story is silent on who would do this.

Moreover, any efforts in the past to have local government provide Internet access have run into fierce opposition from telecom lobbying efforts. In multiple states, Internet service providers have succeeded in pushing bills that forbid municipal governments from providing Internet access to its residents—even when that access is better or cheaper than the private alternative. Would the telecom industry really let the government offer nationwide Wi-Fi that would directly compete with its services? You don’t need to be a reporter at the Washington Post to answer that.

About the Author: Michael Moyer is the editor in charge of space and physics coverage at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @mmoyr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. karenalcott 2:26 pm 02/5/2013

    Well maybe they aren’t going to do it, but we should. It is the best posible way to do for digital what the Rural Electrification Project did for electricity. Make it an affordable utility that is available to all Americans, no matter where they are. As it stands now, rural areas have poor or nonexistant broadband. And small rural towns are uniquely illequiped to go toe to toe with big business in the court room, making it impossible for them to have a commercial presence on the internet.
    In areas with a more concentrated population, a MAN could be set up as a cooperative easily enough, with each user household owning a wifi repeater and the coop owning the backbone connection in common. I have heard that this is already being done in some European cities.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Xopher425 6:39 pm 02/5/2013

    It would be great if we had a nation-wide wifi. Won’t happen, though, when big corporations can get any laws passed in their favor.

    But if we did have a government-sponsored WiFi system, you know the conspiracy theorists would have a field day with Big Brother. Not that they would be wrong . . . .

    Link to this
  3. 3. CPO_Ryback 9:19 pm 02/5/2013

    FATAL FLAW

    Sir, do you know how many govt-owned programs in technology have gone BANKRUPT? Answer: a lot.

    Anyone stupid — yes, stupid — enough to start up expensive govt. programs with NO one accountable, you go BANKRUPT first. We’ll be right behind you. Really.

    ———–

    Would the telecom industry really let the government offer nationwide Wi-Fi that would directly compete with its services? You don’t need to be a reporter at the Washington Post to answer that.

    Link to this
  4. 4. plexed 7:57 am 02/6/2013

    Yeah, I read that article and thought immediately that the reporter missed the boat somewhere. They confused free spectrum with free wifi.

    The FCC can’t create a free wifi network without a huge budget, and the FCC certainly can’t create a huge budget out of thin air. Congress is good at that, but unlikely in this climate.

    Reading the cheerleading in the comments was quite amusing though.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Handin23 12:43 pm 02/6/2013

    Would love to see the US invest an a huge infrastructure project like this but I think the money required would be better suited to bury our cables. Power telecommunications ect. Get rid of all these ugly poles dotting the roads and cities not to mention the added benefit to being more resistant to outages due to weather.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Bill123 2:13 pm 03/16/2013

    “In short, someone would have to invest a ton of money into building and operating a giant Wi-Fi network. The Washington Post story is silent on who would do this.”

    So much just can’t be done. Like some kind of national highway system that was inter-state. Pipe dreams.

    Link to this

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