AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint are no doubt concerned about the FCC's plan to open up high-quality RF spectrum for free Internet access, but they shouldn't be too worried. Too many factors weigh against such spectrum resulting in actual free Internet access for the public.
News that the FCC has been proposing to set aside spectrum for municipal broadband Internet access has a lot of people piping up, both pro and con. It's a brave idea, and quite possibly a doomed one.
First off, this isn't exactly news. It's the newest incarnation of the "white space broadband" proposal the FCC floated back in 2011, where the spectrum freed up by the switch to digital over-the-air TV broadcasting could be used for everything from municipal Wi-Fi to as-yet-uninvented networking technologies.
The ultimate nightmare scenario for the telcos isn't hard to envision. The FCC reserves that spectrum for the development of an entirely new wireless technology, with the power and speed of Wi-Fi and the mobility of 4G LTE, and which is reserved for municipal use. But the odds of that ever happening, in whole or part, are terribly slender. Here's why.
The first and most obvious challenge: the existing for-pay providers of wireless broadband. Well, of course: the idea that a taxpayer-funded service could come along and undercut what they have to sell to people -- even if not in every market they currently service -- scares the daylights out of them. AT&T has been one of its biggest enemies, especially since it's sinking tons of money into upgrading its own wireless bandwidth allocations, and wouldn't want to have that money go to waste.
The second challenge is the technology to be used. The FCC plans to use some 195 MHz of spectrum in the 5 GHz band (802.11n), which is already in use. The FCC notes that "because the 5 gigahertz band is already used for other purposes by both federal and non-federal users, the effort will require significant collaboration with other federal agencies". But they're not the only ones: the auto industry is also concerned the use of said spectrum might infringe on the signal space for a vehicle-to-vehicle warning system that's currently being developed. The National Association of Broadcasters also has it own concerns.
The third challenge is the time and effort involved to actually build the network. The whitespace proposal has been on the table for years, with the only antennas actually erected to make use of it so far being a pilot program in Wilmington, North Carolina. And that was only because they were one of the first cities to make the transition from analog to digital TV, thus freeing up the needed spectrum. (There's also the question of whether or not the current generation of client devices could handle such a network. I suspect the answer will have to be "yes", to speed adoption.)
There's yet another reason reserving that bandwidth for public use is problematic: selling it off would generate sizeable revenue for the government. The Columbus Dispatchclaims the auction of this bandwidth could generate some $15 billion, although some companies (e.g., AT&T) could also be barred from bidding or could only acquire certain amounts of bandwidth. Companies like Google and Microsoft have been lobbying hard to keep the spectrum public; AT&T and other telecoms have been pushing lawmakers to allow the spectrum to be sold.
Both sides can make strong cases for why their approach is best. The telcos could argue that having such frequency in private hands would allow it to be developed far more thoroughly and quickly than if it were a public resource. The Googles and Microsofts could make a case that putting that spectrum into private hands only means that many more ways for your broadband bills to be jacked up.
Thing is, if it does take years and billions of public dollars to create such a network, that might actually undercut one of the telcos' competition arguments. Municipal broadband would be too limited (and perhaps also slow) to really pose a threat to the likes of AT&T, since anyone who really needed quality broadband wireless would be more than willing to pay for it.
I would love to see municipal wireless broadband available with the same ubiquity as water and electricity. The last century saw us bring the latter to just about the whole of the country. Network access has become as valuable to the average citizen as electricity itself, so it's high time we took the idea of municipal Internet seriously. But we can't kid ourselves into thinking it'll be fast or easy.
Then again, if it was, it might not have been worth it.