Tech, telecom giants take sides as FCC proposes large public WiFi networks

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The federal government wants to create super WiFi networks across the nation, so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month.

The proposal from the Federal Communications Commission has rattled the $178 billion wireless industry, which has launched a fierce lobbying effort to persuade policymakers to reconsider the idea, analysts say. That has been countered by an equally intense campaign from Google, Microsoft and other tech giants who say a free-for-all WiFi service would spark an explosion of innovations and devices that would benefit most Americans, especially the poor.

The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing WiFi networks that have become common in households. They 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.

The new WiFi networks would also have much farther reach, allowing for a driverless car to communicate with another vehicle a mile away or a patient’s heart monitor to connect to a hospital on the other side of town.

If approved by the FCC, the free networks would still take several years to set up. And, with no one actively managing them, con­nections could easily become jammed in major cities. But public WiFi could allow many consumers to make free calls from their mobile phones via the Internet. The frugal-minded could even use the service in their homes, allowing them to cut off expensive Internet bills.

“For a casual user of the Web, perhaps this could replace carrier service,” said Jeffrey Silva, an analyst at the Medley Global Advisors research firm. “Because it is more plentiful and there is no price tag, it could have a real appeal to some people.”

The major wireless carriers own much more spectrum than what is being proposed for public WiFi, making their networks more robust, experts say.

Designed by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, the plan would be a global first. When the U.S. government made a limited amount of unlicensed airwaves available in 1985, an unexpected explosion in innovation followed. Baby monitors, garage door openers and wireless stage microphones were created. Millions of homes now run their own wireless networks, connecting tablets, game consoles, kitchen appli­ances and security systems to the Internet.

“Freeing up unlicensed spectrum is a vibrantly free-market approach that offers low barriers to entry to innovators developing the technologies of the future and benefits consumers,” Genachow­ski said in a an e-mailed statement.

Some companies and cities are already moving in this direction. Google is providing free WiFi 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 high cellphone and Internet   

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