President Bush Disapproves of Free National Wi-Fi (sigh)

December 12, 2008

(ChattahBox) — Proving it’s probably actually a very good idea, President Bush has expressed disapproval of the free nationwide Wi-Fi proposal being considered by the FCC and Congress. In a nod to his alleged “free-market” principles, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez issued an open letter to the FCC this week, stating the administration’s argument against legislation that could lead to nationwide no-fee wireless Internet. The administration hopes to influence FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to overturn the proposal during the FCC’s next scheduled meeting on December 18th.

The legislation, which is before Congress now, would require whoever buys the chunk of wireless spectrum being auctioned next year to set aside a quarter for no-fee service to rural areas that don’t have broadband access. The space being auctioned, called the Advanced Wireless Services (or AWS-3) spectrum, is being vacated by television broadcasters, who must switch to wired digital broadcasting in January by federal mandate. That leaves a new swath of “white space” free to be leased by the highest bidder.

In his letter, the Secretary argues that “This mandate would likely lead to congested and inefficiently used broadband,” though he doesn’t say specifically how that would happen. Since the free broadband would only operate at downstream speeds of around 700Kbps, most consumer services are twice that speed at about 1.5Mbps, it’s hard to imagine any small business or power-user abandoning their paid service for a pokey, if free, connection. Upstream speeds would be much slower than 700k, making massive uploads prohibitively slow, and stemming most peer-to-peer abuse. At certain points in his letter, Secretary Gutierrez betrays his ignorance of the alternatives to free wireless broadband. He says “… a government-mandated free nationwide network is not the most effective or efficient way to assist underserved areas,” but exactly the opposite is true. There’s a reason that no private company has opened up service to rural residents in some areas of the country: the potential revenue from those customers doesn’t offset the cost of the infrastructure they’d need to build.

Because the free service would be administered by whichever private company won the auction for the AWS-3 white space, that company could use the same tools it uses on private service — caps, filtering, monitoring — to enforce good usage habits on the public spectrum.

As Barack Obama commented last week, the United States is 15th world-wide in broadband adoption. He hasn’t expressly endorsed the proposal for free nationwide Wi-Fi, but his most likely candidate for commerce secretary, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, advocated free rural broadband when he himself was a presidential contender.


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