A Free Wi-Fi Network for Seattle?

Home » A Free Wi-Fi Network for Seattle?

The Washington Post recently ran a headline announcing that the “FCC (Federal Communications Commission) proposes large public WiFi networks,” going on to claim the FCC wants to create “super Wi-Fi 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.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, the Post’s interpretation of the FCC’s announcement turned out to be a little misleading. Rather than building such a network, the FCC is merely considering making available for free unlicensed high-bandwidth digital spectrum that would allow for such networks. It would be up to others – cities in partnership with non-profits, community groups or tech companies – to create and operate them.

Offering such a spectrum for free is remarkable, considering that large telecom companies paid tens of billions of dollars to buy similar spectrum from the FCC in 2008. The FCC realizes that freeing up more unlicensed spectrum could bring competition and the resulting innovation to a cellular market that seems headed for domination by just a couple of carriers. It could also help meet the growing demand for video and other high-bandwidth functions on mobile devices.

The Mayor recently announced an intriguing partnership with the University of Washington and a company called Gigibit Squared to utilize the City’s unused fiber optics system to provide ultra high-speed fiber to over 50,000 households and businesses in 14 demonstration neighborhoods. But, once that demonstration project is built out, it won’t be free to users.

While the FCC’s plan is still just a proposal, I would like to work with Councilmember Bruce Harrell, Chair of the Council’s technology committee, and my fellow member on that committee, Councilmember Mike O’Brien, to organize a possible brown bag discussion on this topic. Chair Harrell has been a long-time advocate of providing more affordable digital access for all Seattle residents.

My staff recently contacted the FCC in D.C. to request a speaker be available at such a brown bag to answer questions and explain how the program might work. A date hasn’t been chosen yet, but the FCC representative sounded hopeful that, if not in person, they could make someone available via Skype or conference phone. The brown bag would include City staff, Councilmembers Harrell & O’Brien, representatives from Seattle’s tech industry, community interest groups, and non-profit organizations and would be open to the public.

Would you be interested in attending such a brown bag discussion? Please let me know.


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