On Sunday, The Washington Post reported “the line in the sand is drawn” between tech companies and telecom titans around an FCC proposal to create free, public WiFi networks across the country. The telecoms, like AT&T and Verizon, have already begun to lobby against the FCC’s plan because greater access to free and public wireless Internet = greater access to free, wireless phone calls and texting over the Internet. For tech companies, like Google and Apple, universal, free Internet accessibility means a greater market share of Internet technology and innovation.
Free and public wireless Internet would take years to implement. I am no tech writer. I can’t intelligently explain spectrums, broadbands, waves; certainly not how the FCC would implement public WiFi. I can barely keep up with the passive-aggressive wireless network names between the warring neighbors of my cul-de-sac. (Seriously, it’s like the Montagues and Capulets around here.)
But, what I do know is broad, national and public Internet means free access to the rural and urban poor. It means options and fewer provider monopolies within markets. More than 95% live in areas with fewer than three choices in Internet providers. Millions of Americans still do not have access to any Internet at all. Worldwide, the U.S does not even rank in the top ten countries when it comes to speed, price and access.
The United Nations has declared Internet access and expression a human right. In the United States, according to the latest Census, Internet access for adults earning over $75,000 annually is at 96%. For incomes less than $30,000, that number drops to 63%. Those numbers become even more disproportionate between education levels, racial/ethnic backgrounds, and English-speaking vs non English-speaking households. Currently in the US, there are a handful of cities which provide free WiFi Internet access. These include Cambridge, Denver, and El Paso. Though, many of these cities only provide the access in small public areas and in many cases for only a few hours a day. Google also provides grants and several pilot programs to provide free municipal WiFi access in a few cities nationwide, including parts of Manhattan and Silicon Valley. With their proposal last week, the FCC went further in sounding a firm commitment to level the Internet playing field universally.
It’s true, Team Telecom could potentially lose ungodly sums of money as millions more have free access to making all of their phone calls wirelessly over the Internet. It’s also true that Team Tech stands to make ungodly sums of money through innovation and new technologies that would inevitably arise from a nearly universal market of Internet users. So, before any FCC proposals are realized, these sides will spends millions lobbying and battling it out. In the meantime, in my market, I have a choice between two Internet service providers. Well, those guys and the hotspot at Starbucks.