The Washington Post reports that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering a proposal to provide free internet access in major metropolitan and many rural areas. The plan, largely opposed by wireless telecom companies and supported by tech companies including Microsoft and Google, would open up publicly owned spectrum as super strength WiFi and take several years to implement. Some of the possible key benefits include:
1. Helping the U.S. close the broadband infrastructure gap. Despite being the birthplace of many internet innovations, the U.S. ranks 16th in terms of broadband penetration, speed, and price. A staggering 96 percent of U.S. residents live in areas with two or fewer wireline internet providers, and 5 percent live in areas without any providers. A massive public work Wifi program would help deliver high speed internet access to areas currently lacking and provide competition in areas with limited choice.
2. Using wireless spectrum as a public good. There is a debate raging over the best use of publicly owned wireless spectrum, with some business interests advocating for the space to be auctioned to private companies — creating the potential for monopolies. Using the spectrum for provide free internet access to the public is a way to to make sure average users benefit, rather than big corporations.
3. Expanding freedom of expression online. The United Nations calls freedom of expression online a human right, but not everyone has internet access in the U.S. and private attempts to build out access haven’t been able to bridge the gap. Eliminating the cost barrier by providing access for free will undoubtedly expand the number of total U.S. internet users, thus giving more people a voice online.
4. Bolstering innovation. Expanding the number of internet users means expanding the market for internet devices — that’s one of the reasons tech giants including Microsoft and Google are supporting the plan — and opening the way for more experimentation and innovation in that marketplace. The original Washington Post story notes that the last time the FCC opened up a spectrum for public use, creativity in the form of “[b]aby monitors, garage door openers and wireless stage microphone” directly followed.