The Washington Post this morning has an interesting piece about the FCC’s new plans for public super WiFi networks across the country. It has me a bit puzzled, because it looks like a reincarnation of the municipal WiFi movement of a few years ago. The prospect of free broadband connectivity around town, enabling cell phone users to offload virtually everything and avoid paying for minutes and such was always a big draw.
But most such efforts went down in flames for a reason though. Local governments suddenly realized that they would be on the hook for more than they bargained for, and the service providers they were working with realized there was a minor thing missing from the business model – like a profit.
So what’s changed? Apparently, one big new wrinkle is the spectrum the FCC is hoping to commit to the idea, which would give WiFi signals better penetration power. That could make it usable from within homes as an alternative to DSL or Cable for the thrifty. Another is the fact that the mobile data wave is no longer just a projection, it has become reality. As video traffic continues to rise and wireless carriers struggle to find ways to charge more for heavy usage, there could be a real need for another offload ramp.
The wireless carriers of course have a different idea. Unsurprisingly, they want the spectrum itself to bolster their 4G networks when spectrum availability inevitably tightens. They’d rather not have any public offramps at all, despite the fact that their business model is already trying to figure out just how to balance the cost of capacity expansion at without parallel revenue expansion. Competing with public/free is even less palatable than having someone else take the data hogs off their hands, apparently.
But what’s missing from the discussion so far is just who would be building and operating these things? What exactly would make them ‘free’? After all, there are still base stations and backhaul to install and operate, so would this be tax dollars at work? From what I’ve seen, cities love this idea until they have to pay for them. Meanwhile, the likes of Earthlink are not likely to dive back into that pool again without some serious incentives (if at all). There is the WISP community out there actually making money at this sort of thing albeit on a small, local scale generally. Perhaps the FCC is (or ought to be) reaching out to them with this plan.