Jeff Gelles: 'Free' public WiFi part of larger networking vision

Public WIFI is still free in Malcolm X Park in West Philly. (Photo from

You can't see it, smell it, feel it, taste it, or hear it, but radio spectrum is a precious public resource at the center of many policy fights. That was true again this week in the strange flap over whether the Federal Communications Commission really is scheming to create what the Internet quickly heralded as "free WiFi!"

The Washington Post's Cecilia Kang stirred the pot Monday with a story saying the federal government wanted "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."

Kang, whose story called it "free-for-all WiFi service," came back the next day with some clarifications. Headlined "Five things to know about 'free' public WiFi," her new story explained that neither the FCC nor the federal government was actually planning to build these new networks, that the idea was part of a bigger plan, and that even if all went as hoped, "it could take years for this to happen."

But this isn't a sheepish "never mind" moment - Kang wasn't completely wrong. So, if you care about the future of technology, or if you're just tired of spending hundreds a month on voice and data services, you'll want to consider the FCC's plan for managing this limited resource on our behalf.

Much of the agency's role is beyond the average consumer's horizons and centers on making sure technology works as it should - for instance, without interference from other devices. You don't want one TV channel bleeding into another, or your plane's pilot hearing country tunes when she's trying to talk to the tower.

But as manager of the nation's radio spectrum, the FCC has also embraced a role as a shepherd of innovation and economic growth - a point made repeatedly by chairman Julius Genachowski and President Obama, who appointed him.

Which brings us to the wonkishly titled proceeding - "Expanding the Economic and Innovation Opportunities of Spectrum Through Incentive Auctions" - at the heart of the "Free WiFi" hoo-ha.

In September, after winning support from an unusual bipartisan coalition in Congress, Genachowski's FCC moved forward with something never done before: an "incentive auction" that would pay owners of TV licenses to return spectrum from the UHF bands.

The FCC plans to re-auction most of the reclaimed spectrum to wireless carriers, which are always hungry to expand their spectrum holdings. But some, taken from the so-called white spaces that served as a buffer between channels before the digital age, would be retained as unlicensed spectrum. The goal would be to assemble a small slice of that spectrum nationwide to stay publicly owned and available for any use, even those yet to be imagined.

This isn't just any spectrum. In the world of radio waves, UHF signal counts as a premium product.

"This is stuff that will penetrate through walls, and you can propagate the signal much further at lower power," says Harold Feld, of Public Knowledge, an open-Internet advocacy group.

Unlicensed spectrum already plays a role in a variety of technologies, such as garage-door openers, baby monitors, CB radio, and today's WiFi routers.

"The success of WiFi, both open and password-locked, has shown the incredible value of unlicensed spectrum," says Peter Eckersley, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Numerous technologies exist only because there are these tiny scraps of spectrum that were left public when the spectrum was auctioned to phone companies."

Feld says the new spectrum would enable "WiFi on steroids." He says cities such as Philadelphia, which failed in its first effort to create a municipal WiFi network through a partnership with Earthlink, might even want to try again - as might other companies.

"With the newer WiFi, it would be much more cost-effective," Feld says. "You'd need about a quarter of the cell sites to do the same work."

Companies such as Google and Microsoft are eager to push forward with the FCC's plan, envisioning new connectivity for people and new waves of connected devices. Not surprisingly, other companies - especially the wireless carriers - have been a bit more wary.

Free WiFi? Not right now, at least. But if the FCC is right, the possibilities are endless.


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or