Monday, February 4, 2013 at 11:44 am.

Before You Get Excited About That ‘Free Super WiFi!’ Story…

The Cable Guy“Imagine a free WiFi network spanning the country. The feds want it to happen, wireless cos don’t.” That’s NYT media reporter Brian Stelter’s tweet this morning, linking to a Washington Post article by Cecilia Kang.

Sounds amazing! Probably too amazing.

The article itself has a dreamy beginning, too:

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.

A few important questions:

  • Why would the Internet access be free? Sure, the airwaves that would be used for this service wouldn’t come with the multi-billion-dollar FCC auction price tags that, say, Verizon and AT&T have paid for the right to sell you cellphone service. But someone still has to provide the bandwidth, and last I checked, bandwidth isn’t free. And the companies that are in the position to most easily provide the bandwidth for this service are the cable and phone companies — the same ones that are theoretically most at risk from a service like this one. And once you start there, someone has to pay for the network infrastructure, the bandwidth management, the CRM software, the billing, the credit card processing, etc. I still have never seen anyone explain how these airwaves would actually turn into free Internet service.
  • Why would this be better than the inexpensive Internet service we already subscribe to? The WaPo’s Kang even warns, “with no one actively managing them, connections could easily become jammed in major cities.” Well, that sounds great! “Free” crappy Internet. Last I checked, most people would rather pay more than they do already for good, fast, reliable Internet access. Slow, unreliable access is already a pretty frequent complaint. Life is too short for shitty wifi, even if it’s free.
  • Would this even work with the devices you and I carry around all day? No guarantee that Apple or Samsung would support these networks. Don’t forget who actually writes the checks for Apple’s billions of U.S. iPhone profits: AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint.
  • Why is this in the news again, anyway? This has been vaporware for years. It seems more like a publicity push for the FCC and/or Julius Genachowski than anything tangible. See Google talking about it here in 2008, problems with devices later in 2008, more “Imagine a future…” salivating in 2010 by MG Siegler, etc.

Perhaps this is another head-fake attempt to get the existing broadband companies to build better, faster services for their subscribers? Who knows. But it certainly still doesn’t pass the smell test.

I’d love for this to actually be a believable reality, and for it to be awesome. But right now, it’s science fiction.