Last month, The Washington Post ran a story entitled “Tech, telecom giants take sides as FCC proposes large public Wi-Fi networks,” in which author Cecilia Kang claimed that the government and major tech companies like Google and Microsoft were en route to a clash of the titans with equally major telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T. Their beef? The supposed creation of national “super Wi-Fi” networks. “The federal government wants to create super Wi-Fi 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 story read.
“The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing Wi-Fi networks that have become common in households,” it explained. “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.”
Naturally, the article got people buzzing. The promise of what seems to be such a great public service excited many, but also created quite a bit of skepticism towards the article’s lofty claims. The Post even had to run a clarification piece a couple days later just to deal with it all.
Really? Super Wi-Fi for All?
But the core questions still remained: Would the government really undertake such a massive endeavor? Could stronger, faster and more widespread Wi-Fi networks mark the beginning of the end for major telecom companies? Are people actually going to do this for free? Is this real life?
Well, yes and no. Mostly no. But before delving into the potential ramifications of this whole topic, one has to know what “super Wi-Fi” actually is. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as clear cut as the original Post article suggested.
The first thing to understand about super Wi-Fi is that, right now, it’s not real. It’s mostly an idea, a hope, and a dream. It could become a full-fledged reality within the next decade, but it hasn’t been deployed on a national level just yet. There’s no way for average Joes and Janes to gain access to this mythical speedier, stronger and free wireless Internet at the time of this writing. And whenever it does arrive on a larger scale, it won’t come on one network — and it probably won’t be free.
The second thing to know about super Wi-Fi is that there’s more to it than just being “super Wi-Fi.” What’s really being discussed in this case are things called white spaces, which are sometimes described as allowing “super Wi-Fi” or “Wi-Fi on steroids” and have been at the heart of a near-decade old debate that isn’t stopping anytime soon. For the past many years, companies have clashed with the FCC and other tech companies over the designation and allocation of stuff called licensed and unlicensed spectrum.
But let’s take a step back for a second and explain what spectrum is first. In (quasi-)layman’s terms, spectrum is the range of invisible signals that helps wirelessly transmit much of the data people use for their TV, radio, GPS, mobile phone and general wireless device needs. It’s used across a wide variety of different technologies. It’s the set of frequencies that let users fire off a Tweet from their phone one minute and wirelessly open their garage door the next.
The FCC is the segment of the government that’s in charge of which entities are using what slices of U.S. spectrum, and thus is tasked with keeping wireless signals from interfering with each other by being broadcast over the same spectrum. If two signals did that, they’d both be rendered useless.
The problem with spectrum is that it’s not unlimited. It’s a growing dilemma unique to the modern age: More and more people are getting connected — especially through mobile devices — so more and more spectrum is becoming required to accommodate the public’s growing wireless needs.
This is where white spaces and the debate over licensed and unlicensed spectrum come back in. To put it simply, licensed spectrum is that which is exclusive to certain companies. Think television broadcasters or telecom carriers like Verizon or Sprint. They essentially own their own slices of spectrum and use it as they see fit.
Unlicensed spectrum, as one could guess, is just the opposite: it’s the spectrum used for mostly open and free utilities like Bluetooth devices, the aforementioned garage door openers, and yes, Wi-Fi, among other things.
Over the past few years, the federal government has scrambled to free up more spectrum from those who are currently licensed to use select slices of it. Specifically, it has tried to take back some from broadcast TV stations, whose current allocation of spectrum has become increasingly lopsided as people get whatever they need from cable, satellite, mobile devices, the Internet, et al.
In 2008, the FCC gave the thumbs up to create wireless devices that work in networks based in White Space spectrum. Note that that’s “networks,” not “network” — again, there isn’t going to be one nationwide gateway where users can get free internet. So what are white spaces?
In general, they’re just unused radio frequencies. But for the purposes of the super Wi-Fi debate, white spaces are the inefficient spaces of Ultra High Frequency (UHF) band spectrum between used television frequencies. They’re often deployed by TV broadcasters in the form of “guard bands,” which are used to block (or “guard”) potential interference on the more active channels.
But those guard bands aren’t entirely necessary anymore. Advances in TV technology (the shift from analog to digital television signals in particular) combined with the growing need for spectrum in other arenas has led to FCC to begin an “incentive auction” process, in which it will (and to some extent already has) start taking the spectrum from these vacant TV channels and reallocate them for other purposes.
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