Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
11/2/2006
11:43 AM
David  DeJean
David DeJean
Commentary
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FCC Wants Wi-Fi To Be Free? Don't You Believe It

At first I was excited, then it hit me: The FCC's action in the Logan Airport Wi-Fi dispute was hardly a decision in favor of freer, more open access to the Internet. In fact, it was the opposite, and business as usual for a federal agency that in its present incarnation has an absolutely breathtaking record for stealing from the poor (that would be us, the citizens of the United States, who own the airwaves) and giving to the rich.

At first I was excited, then it hit me: The FCC's action in the Logan Airport Wi-Fi dispute was hardly a decision in favor of freer, more open access to the Internet. In fact, it was the opposite, and business as usual for a federal agency that in its present incarnation has an absolutely breathtaking record for stealing from the poor (that would be us, the citizens of the United States, who own the airwaves) and giving to the rich.On the face of it, the decision seemed to favor more open access. The Massachusetts Port Authority, the state agency that operates Boston's airport, had decided that it would be the only entity allowed to offer Wi-Fi services to travelers in its facilities. It made some silly argument about safety, but I can't find any statistics for the number of people killed or injured by Wi-Fi networks. The motivation was clearly economic. Massport signed a blanket deal with a service provider that cut its airport tenants out of Wi-Fi revenues and stuck it to the travelers for Internet access.

Continental Airlines wanted to offer its Presidents Club members free Wi-Fi in its Logan lounge. Massport said it couldn't. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission ruled yesterday it could.

But "open" isn't what this is about. It's important to realize here that the decision by the FCC has nothing to do with "free" Wi-Fi, either in the sense of being more widely accessible or being lower cost. The net result of the decision--just like the net result of almost all recent FCC decisions--is that corporate interests have been given greater control over the airwaves, and citizens have been given less, and the corporations that will profit get this sweet deal for free.

The fact that Massport is perfectly capable of exhibiting all the greed and self-interest of your typical corporation doesn't belie the fact that it's an agency of a state government. To be sure, it's Massachusetts, a state where greed and self-interest are arguably requirements of office, but it's a government that represents its citizens nonetheless.

The FCC stripped the government agency of this golden goose and bestowed it on its corporate masters. It acted as an agency of a higher government, which should mean that holds to a higher sense of ethics--but the FCC has developed a truly tragic case of Washington Alzheimer's that has totally confused its memory of who it was created to serve and who it was created to regulate.

Michael Copps, thief-in-charge at the FCC, issued a statement that said, "Today's decision ensures that the Wi-Fi bands remain free and open to travelers, who can make productive use of their time while waiting to catch their next flight in an airport."

Bullshoes. Wi-Fi in the Continental lounge is never going to be free. It costs $375 a year to get through that door--plus a $50 initiation fee if you're a newbie. That's even a little bit more than Massport charges for Wi-Fi. (And I'll bet it's secured, too, so the hoi polloi can't sit out in the hall and siphon off the signal.)

The scariest thing about the FCC decision is that the agency made it at all. It sets a clear precedent for deciding wireless network provisioning cases against government agencies and for private interests--not a big deal for the Presidents Club, but a very big deal for all those cities and towns that want to build municipal wireless.

The news article about the decision noted that Continental was backed by the industry, wireless providers, and cargo shippers. I'll bet it was--wireless providers in particular. The FCC, at the behest of its corporate masters, seems to be building a case for privatizing Internet access in this country.

It was Stuart Brand who first said, "Information wants to be free." But that was only half of what he said. The entire quote is, "On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other."

With the current FCC as referee, it's not a fair fight. And the public is the loser.

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