A pretty important debate is taking place at the highest levels of influence in America and it is around the roll-out of free Wi-Fi across the nation. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) supported by major technology companies wants to create a high-speed Wi-Fi network across the nation that will allow consumers to surf the net for free. In particular, Americans would be able to connect to free wi-fi networks on their Apple, Google or Nokia smart phones and leverage Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology to make and receive free calls (think Skype, Vonage and Facetime) anywhere in the country. This is where the big telecom players like AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless have started a strong push to block this free high speed Wi-Fi network. Because if it ever comes to fruition they could lose a large part of their wireless business.
Big tech companies like Google and Yahoo are clearly supportive of this proposal because their addressable market would grow significantly and their big claim is that free internet access would benefit the poor the most, who cannot readily afford the high cost of smart phone data plans. Further, if the Wi-Fi network is as broad and powerful as is claimed millions of Americans could use the service in their homes, allowing them to cut off expensive internet and cable bills.
As the Washington post outlined some companies and cities are already moving in this direction. Google is providing free Wi-Fi to the public in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and parts of Silicon Valley. Cities support the idea because the networks would lower costs for schools and businesses or help vacationers easily find tourist spots. Consumer advocates note the benefits to the poor, who often cannot afford wireless bills.
Offcourse the devil is in the detail with this plan because the information superhighway, or spectrum, is a very valuable commodity and the free Wi-Fi proposal would require local television stations and other broadcasters to sell a chunk of airwaves to the government that would be used for the public Wi-Fi networks. Most companies would not be willing to do so. Arguments made by companies such as AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless include statements that the government should focus its attention on selling the airwaves to private businesses, rather than trying to create another government run business. Some of these companies also cautioned that a free Wi-Fi service could interfere with existing cellular networks and television broadcasts, a claim refuted by the FCC.
At first glance this is a very appealing idea from a consumer perspective. My household cell phone, cable and internet bills are almost $400 a month and it would be nice to cut a significant portion of this. But free Wi-Fi opens up a whole host of security issues, imagine everyone on the same network, which includes hackers and identify thieves. And ultimately the wireless power dynamic will just shift from one group of corporate companies to another. Most worrying is that down the road the government, who owns the network, may start asking us to pay a Wi-Fi network tax!
This is a debate that is going to rage on for a while and could reshape our wireless industry yet again. What are your thoughts on this issue?