Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

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


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.

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

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