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FCC Proposes Public WiFi Network


The federal government has proposed an ambitious plan to build public WiFi networks throughout the country. The idea is to boost innovation and make the Internet cheaper and more accessible.


The Federal Communications Commission wants to do this by acquiring wireless spectrum from television broadcasters, including certain airwaves, and set them aside for public use.

MONTAGNE: To find out more about this plan - who likes it and who doesn't - we called Cecilia Kang at the Washington Post. She's been writing about this public WiFi plan and tells us it would actually build on existing networks, networks that now allow us to use everyday gadgets like garage door openers and baby monitors.

CECILIA KANG: These are all technologies that were brought forth the first time the FCC allowed what's known as unlicensed use. But what the FCC's doing differently and what's so interesting about its proposal is it wants to use a swath of airwaves that's particularly powerful that could really kind of make WiFi that we know today sort of at a new level, a sort of super-WiFi.

MONTAGNE: Could you get just a little technical and talk to us about what that swath is?

KANG: The swath of airwaves under consideration is currently being used by television stations to broadcast their shows. And if these TV stations agree to sell these airwaves to the FCC, the FCC can use a portion of those airwaves for unlicensed public use. And these airwaves are really strong, in that they travel through concrete walls, over hills, around trees. It's the really strong airwaves that actually the wireless carriers right now are also using to build out what's known as their high-speed Internet networks, 4G LTE. So these are very valuable, very desirable airwaves.

MONTAGNE: And how much of a threat is this really to the wireless industry - that is, companies like Verizon and AT&T?

KANG: They fear that A, there could be more competition but B, they're afraid that if you have too many people in the city that are using these public WiFi networks, that could crowd out, say, the TV station or the wireless carrier that's operating their own technologies on what's known as a adjacent bands, or close by. So, they're afraid of crowding and interference as well.

MONTAGNE: Although, I understand that the Internet giants like Google and Microsoft are supporters of this plan.

KANG: They would benefit immensely, in that for Google, for Microsoft - interestingly, they pretty much are enemies on every issue except this one. But they very much support anyone using the Internet more and anyone using devices that carry their software more. So they have a lot to gain. They also have a lot of plans for the future. They want for appliances to connect with servers, to connect with security systems within the home, so you have all these machines and devices that are connected on the Internet. And in order to do that, you need these wireless connections in this unlicensed way.

MONTAGNE: And, aside from these big corporate interests, who else is weighing in?

KANG: The public interest groups are weighing in. They hope, a lot of public institutions and cities and consumer groups really hope that these more powerful airwaves will bring forth much more connectivity that for, particularly people who are on the poorer end of the economic spectrum can have access to the Internet without having to pay monthly bills. It should be noted that there is quite a political battle, though, involved in this, in that Republicans in the House, they've actually criticized the FCC proposal and that they think that there should be more airwaves dedicated to auctions so that commercial carriers, companies like the AT&Ts and the Verizons and Sprints and T-Mobiles of the world can bid and buy up more spectrum and then put those billions of dollars back into the government, back into the Treasury. So that's another debate that's being fought here in Washington on the Hill.

MONTAGNE: Cecilia Kang writes about national technology policy for The Washington Post. Thanks very much.

KANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.