The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is working on an extraordinarily ambitious plan to create “Super Wi-Fi networks” that are so incredibly powerful they could reach every corner of the nation, allowing people to make calls and access the internet from anywhere, completely free of charge.
Julius Genachowski, Chairman of the FCC, says that these Super Wi-Fi networks would be “far more powerful than existing WiFi networks, and could penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees. If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and in many rural areas.”
Not surprisingly, the news has been met with dismay by a wireless industry that reaps around $178 billion a year from mobile phone users. Carriers such as T-Mobile and AT&T, seeing their very existence threatened by the plan, have just launched an intense lobbying campaign to prevent the plan from coming to fruition. However, this has put them squarely at odds with some extremely powerful foes – including Google and Microsoft – which have both thrown their weight behind the FCC’s idea, claiming it will spark a wave of innovation that would benefit the vast majority of the population including, most importantly, the poorest.
What Is Super Wi-Fi?
Before we consider the implications of this plan, it helps to understand exactly what we’re talking about here.
According to ZDNet’s Stephen Vaughn-Nichols, Super Wi-Fi is, surprisingly, not some kind of miraculous new technology, but is actually an idea that’s been kicking around for close to ten years now. It refers to the unused ‘white space’ spectrum in the 600MHz bandwidth, which is far more powerful than the broadband and 4G LTE spectrum offered by carriers today. Currently this white space isn’t being used, but the FCC is preparing to auction it off to television networks and carriers in the near future, reserving some of (what it terms ‘guard bands’) for “unlicensed devices” which would constitute the Super Wi-Fi network.
The FCC’s Neil Grace adds more:
“The FCC’s incentive auction proposal, launched in September of last year, would unleash substantial spectrum for licensed uses like 4G LTE. It would also free up unlicensed spectrum for uses including, but not limited to, next generation Wi-Fi. As the demand for mobile broadband continues to grow rapidly, we need to free up significant amounts of spectrum for commercial use, and both licensed and unlicensed spectrum must be part of the solution.”
Vaughn-Nichols explains that the most fundamental issue is the sheer power of this new 600MHz spectrum. The range of 600MHz access points is astonishing by today’s standards – about 12 miles, on average – while bandwidth speeds would be somewhere in the range of 20Mbps down and 6Mbps up. Of course, these speeds would vary quite a bit depending on how many thousands of users are tapping into these access points, but the potential of Super Wi-Fi is all too evident.
Beginning of the end for carriers?
Putting aside the idealistic considerations of a free and widely accessible internet for a moment, the dynamics of the mobile communications industry would be altered dramatically if Super Wi-Fi were to become a reality, pitting cellular networks against internet companies in a bitter fight for dominance of the airwaves.
Carriers have already seen one key source of income – SMS messages – stripped away from them by the emergence of free internet messaging services like WhatsApp and Skype, but the prospect of free phone calls over the Super Wi-Fi network would be absolutely crippling for the wireless industry.
The Washington Post reports that AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and chip-maker Qualcomm have now stepped up their lobbying efforts in a bid to put the brakes on the Super Wi-Fi plan. Readers might be surprised to hear that Qualcomm is so anti-Super Wi-Fi, but when one considers that its new Snapdragon chips integrate LTE functionality, it’s clear that it considers the success of 4G as being crucial to its future.
Unfortunately for them, Google of all companies, stands in their way. The internet’s biggest company insists that Super Wi-Fi would benefit the vast majority of the population and spark an explosion of innovation, but what it doesn’t talk about is the massive financial opportunity that would fall into its grasp. Whether it’s through traditional search or through some other innovative means, such as free phone calls and/or broadcasting via Google Hangouts, the possibilities for expanding its advertising network are unimaginably large.
Given the political influence that Google has, not to mention its financial muscle, one might think that carriers really are staring down the barrel of a gun. But the future is far from clear-cut, with numerous hurdles to overcome before Super Wi-Fi becomes a reality.
For one thing, the FCC’s plan was first suggested back in 2004, and ever since then it’s been debated within political circles without anything concrete emerging. The FCC hasn’t even come up with a plan of action for building the necessary infrastructure to support a Super Wi-Fi network, something that Dan Frommer of SplatF dismisses as being in the realms of “science fiction”.
Building out this kind of infrastructure would almost certainly cost hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, but who exactly is going to stump up that sort of cash? While Google might be prepared to make some kind of investment, it surely wouldn’t want to foot the bill alone, and no doubt the government would have reservations as well.
One can’t help thinking that consumers would ultimately end up footing the bill for this somehow, whether it’s through taxes or some kind of subscription fee imposed on them – but then, doesn’t that defeat the whole point of having a ‘free’ Super Wi-Fi network anyway?