Bush Condemns Free National Wi-Fi

In another nod to his alleged "free-market" principles, President Bush has expressed disapproval of the free nationwide Wi-Fi proposal being considered by the FCC and Congress.

It's an inauspicious time to decry helpful, even vital democratic initiatives in favor of ideology — after all, many of our most outspoken critics of federal mandate and regulation have ended up looking dogmatic, shortsighted or downright ignorant of late.

But that hasn't stopped the Bush team from making its anti-populist agenda known. 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 spectrum 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.

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.

"The history of FCC spectrum auctions has shown that the potential for problems increases in instances where licensing is overly prescriptive or designed around unproven business models," Gutierrez continues. Huh? No one is telling the winning company what to do with the other 75% of the white space, which could be — and will be — a wildly profitable and flexible spectrum of frequencies. There's no telling what kinds of fantastic products and services will come out of the new space, and the government isn't trying to dictate what will.

It used to be that public resources like land and radio spectrum were leased to private companies by the government so that the "people" could profit from their use. But in 2008, few of us feel as if government revenue is really going to the "people" anymore. This free Wi-Fi legislation would do something that no government lease has done in a while — it would actually return some of the benefit from a public asset to American citizens.

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.

Sure, the company that wins the white space lease could broadcast service to those rural areas wirelessly, and that would cut down on the overhead sufficiently to offer a reasonable rate. But we're not just talking about giving Internet to a bunch of free-loaders; we're talking about providing it free for schools, hospitals, non-profits, the elderly, children, and the poor. If we have an opportunity to enfranchise these organizations and individuals for negligible cost, why wouldn't we? Don't we all benefit from better education for kids, low-cost and efficient online medical records, and fast, cheap online communications?

As Barack Obama maligned 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.

Hopefully FCC Chairman Martin won't renege on the proposal before Congress. Free markets are excellent mechanisms for the broader economy, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't carve out humanitarian niches where they are needed for the upward march of society. After all, what good is any market if there are fewer of us with the access and education to participate in it?

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  • Erik Hellebuyck

    Give the government a form of controlling and monitoring Internet usage nationwide. No thank you.

  • James Nicklas

    It's definitely not free, but hopefully the costs can be average down low enough to get a similar project off the ground.

    <h4>Rural Internet</h4>

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  • Patrick Sullivan

    This is getting crazy. Does anybody read more then two or three sentences before they post? Tim who the hell is saying that it would have to be an "equal quality system for free parallel to one they charge money for". It would be slower so therefore business and a good chunk of private users wouldn't use it. as for your " censorship akin to the Chinese "Great Firewall"". Isn't that like complaining about the print media and then asking to see the sports section of my newspaper and then complaining that I didn't hand you the funny pages with it? I'm starting to think Comcast is not only going to be paying for a huge chunk of the GW library but also paying people to post comments on this and other sites.

  • Derek Hoyt

    Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, one should run as fast as one can in the other direction when a do-gooder approacheth. Free WiFi has no more virtue than free gas.

  • Josh Vittetoe

    To the, altruist, David Sheffield, who thinks that if the government doesn't provide schooling, the postal service, or 'countless' other programs that are integral parts of our lives, you sir are flat out incorrect. Wherever there is a need, the private sector will fill the void that is left from government absence. AND IN EVERY IMAGINABLE CASE, could do it cheaper and more efficiently. Someone please explain to me your moral justification for STEALING to GIVE to someone else who you claim, NEEDS IT!

  • Tim Steeno

    In response to David Sheffield and others in this thread:

    The service would be government mandated, not government provided. Why would the service provider give an equal quality system for free parallel to one they charge money for? How much money will it cost the company to service this 25% channel - will it be more than the benefits gained in selling services on the other 75%? Then why would anyone? In addition, the government is mandating a blacklist - under the guise of protecting children from pornography, the system could prevent access to any website the government feels you shouldn't have access to - censorship akin to the Chinese "Great Firewall".

    Even worse, however, is your closing statement. Your threat is empty to me. Our education system in America has failed - you can even ask the teachers that live it every day. Our students are poor performers in math and science, as well as literature and liberal arts when compared to the global system. The US Postal service is seriously lacking funds and is having to increase costs as well as lay off workers. It continuously cannot compete with private enterprise like UPS and FedEx, but has a government mandated monopoly on mailbox delivery, so our tax dollars keep them afloat. Just because they're "integral parts of our lives" does not mean they're run efficiently, like a for-profit corporation would be. A system of choice will always beat a system of no choice paid for by force. Choice also provides more jobs due to competition.

    I do not support Bush. But I do not support the government intervention in private enterprise, and I do not support government censorship of our Constitutional rights even more. The man is right about this one thing. Let economic forces decide - the endless government regulations are what keep us from having larger broadband and wireless penetration.

  • Clay Dillow

    If only Ted Stevens were around to explain exactly how this technology works to those of us who just don't get it.

  • Patrick Sullivan

    When I came across Fastcompany.com I was hoping for a more informed group of readers who might be able to post comments worth reading. Mr. Carl Lewis has shown me that this won’t be the case for now with this web site. Mr. Lewis where in this article or anywhere else for that matter do you see that the government will “provide” and or “pay for” this free WiFi service? If you would do a little reading of this and many other articles you would see that this is going to be provided by those companies that will be providing the pay service to those areas. Yes, there will be government regulations placed on this free service. Most likely adult sites will not be able to be viewed. Perhaps that’s the reason thou protests so much? As for your comment about the 40% corporate tax rate, show me a company that pays that rate and I’ll show you a company that needs new accountants. Something tells me that Mr. Lewis would like to see another 8 years of the man pictured above.

  • tim thomasson

    Carl Lewis please read and understand the point of the FREE Wi-Fi. If you were to have enough money and you bought the spectrum YOU would be required to leave 25% of it for use as a free service. So that means that you are in control of it you maintain it. The government is just requiring that you set 25% aside if your the winner of the auction.

  • David Sheffield

    In response to Carl Lewis' comment.

    This would not be government provided. The company who won the auction would administer the public service parallel with the private service they offer.

    And if your so afraid of socialism you can get rid of the public school system, the U.S. Postal Service, and countless other programs that are integral parts of our lives.

  • Carl Lewis

    Mr. Dannen you are so wrong I don't even know where to start. Oh wait yes I do, I'll start with the title. If you had any knowledge of technology or economics or history, you would know that this Free National Wi-Fi is not free. It would cost money to produce the technology, it would take money to run the network, it would cost money to build the network. What you meant to say is Government provided national wi-fi. If it's governemnt provided that means that the Government pays for it, if the Government pays for it, that means that Taxpayers pay for it or the governement borrows the money to pay for it increasing the debt. It also means that the governemnt can regulate it just like it currently regulates Aerial Television. Anyone who is a technophiles DOES NOT want the government regulating information at all. Government provided internet opens up a gigantic can of worms which you obviously can't see.

    I also take issue by the way you imply that free markets are the reasons why we don't have better broadband. When the truth is state local and federal governments have imposed regulations on telecoms and entrants to the market which make it nearly impossible to either lay fiber, upgrade existing networks, and with a corporate tax rate of 40% the second highest in the world make it less attractive for companies to invest in these projects because it takes so damn long to recoup investment.

    Again Government programs aren't free and are usually 30-40% more expensive than privately run counterparts due simply to bureaucracy. If you want fast cheap internet the help the companies endeavoring to provide the service and allow the market to pick the winner, instead of saddling everyone with shitty service.