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?