Free super Wi-Fi plan stirs opposition

WASHINGTON — 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.

The proposal, from the Federal Communications Commission, has rattled the $178 billion wireless industry, which has launched a fierce lobbying effort to persuade policy makers 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 Wi-Fi service would spark an explosion of innovation 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 Wi-Fi networks that have become common in households. The signals 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 Wi-Fi networks would also have much farther reach, allowing a driverless car to communicate with a vehicle a mile away or a patient’s heart monitor to connect to a hospital on the other side of town.

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If approved by the FCC, the free networks would take several years to set up. And, with no one actively managing them, connections could easily become jammed in major cities. But public Wi-Fi 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 Internet bills.

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

The plan would be a global first. When the US 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 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.

The 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. It is not clear whether these companies would be willing to do so.

The FCC’s plan is part of a broader strategy to repurpose swaths of the nation’s airwaves to accomplish a number of goals, including bolstering cellular networks and creating a dedicated channel for emergency responders.

Some Republican lawmakers have criticized the idea of free Wi-Fi networks, noting an auction of the airwaves would raise billions for the Treasury. That echoes arguments made by AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Intel, and Qualcomm that the government should selling airwaves to businesses.


The lobbying from the cellular industry motivated longtime rivals Google and Microsoft to join forces to support the FCC’s proposal. Both would benefit from a boom in new Wi-Fi devices. They want to multiply the number of computers, robots, and other machines that connect to the Internet, analysts said. They want cars that drive themselves to have more robust Internet access.

More public Wi-Fi, they say, will spur the use of ‘‘millions of devices that will compose the coming Internet of things.’’