Editor’s Corner: Community Wi-Fi makes too much sense for U.S.

Linda Hardesty editor's corner

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has talked a lot about kids having to do homework in fast-food parking lots to access Wi-Fi in order to do their homework. At the same time, the federal government has allocated up to $65 billion in the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act to close the digital divide in the U.S. But most of the focus on closing the digital divide is to bring fiber to unserved areas – usually in remote, rural locales.

What about closing the digital divide in urban areas where people may already have access to broadband, but they can’t afford the $60-$100 per month cost?

Community Wi-Fi would make so much sense in this circumstance. But unfortunately, in the U.S. we don’t have any national plan to subsidize ubiquitous Wi-Fi infrastructure in cities. And there doesn’t seem to be an incentive for service providers to step into this business, either.

European countries are doing better.

Several years ago, the European Union developed its WiFi4EU initiative to provide free access to Wi-Fi in public spaces, including parks, squares, tourist areas and the like in major cities throughout Europe.

The business model is for municipalities to hire a service provider to set up these Wi-Fi networks. The city receives a subsidy for the project. The service provider gets paid by the municipality. The service provider might also set up its contract with the city to get the side benefit of being able to use any fiber and access points it installs for other purposes – such as wholesaling this infrastructure to other service providers or offloading some of its own mobile traffic onto the Wi-Fi network.

But here in the U.S., we’ve got 50 states, and we seem to prefer doing things in a hodgepodge manner. Sometimes it feels like a misnomer to call ourselves the “United” States.

Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), said there are some stakeholders in the U.S. that are applying, at the state level, for grants to deploy public Wi-Fi. 

But he said, “For me, the big gap in the U.S. is not having some kind of umbrella vision. There is a lot of Wi-Fi at municipalities, but there is a lack of common vision for the country.”

He sees a couple of things that could be done. One is to help subsidize free Wi-Fi in residential areas. The other is to provide unique identities for people to roam from one Wi-Fi network to another with ease.

He said the WBA has worked with the European Union on its WiFi4EU initiative to establish one Wi-Fi identity for people so they can move across cities and countries and across different vendors’ products without having to constantly re-register and sign in with different Wi-Fi credentials.

He said the unique identity also provides security. The EU wanted its citizens and visitors to have the luxury of Wi-Fi, but not at the expense of security. They came up with Passpoint technology to provide this.

Incentives for operators

In the U.S. not only is there no initiative like WiFi4EU to incentivize cities and operators to set up Wi-Fi networks, but there may actually be dis-incentives. Wired service providers have a nice business model selling broadband to individual homes and apartments — even if a lot of people can’t afford their services. Why would they want the city to provide ubiquitous Wi-Fi for everyone to use for free?

One answer is to use the infrastructure to offload their own mobile traffic. Comcast and Charter have touted this benefit a lot, when talking about their relatively new mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) offerings. They brag about using their installed base of millions of Wi-Fi hotspots in public and private spaces to offload their mobile traffic from Verizon’s network, saving them wholesale costs.

Installing more Wi-Fi could save even more costs.

Or perhaps wireless operators such as Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T would like contracts with cities where they would be paid for installing Wi-Fi infrastructure and at the same time be able to offload more of their mobile traffic in dense, urban areas.

Of course, the actuaries at the service providers will be crunching the numbers. And the numbers may not pencil out in favor of ubiquitous Wi-Fi. That’s why municipalities will need to step in. Better yet – the federal government could take some of that Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act funding to incentivize Wi-Fi.

Yes, Europe has more regulation, and that can be annoying. We here in the U.S. like to go in the complete opposite direction, “pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps” and “letting the free market rule,” etc., etc. But sometimes we miss out on good, common sense solutions because of these mind-sets.

Having ubiquitous, community broadband would close the digital divide in urban areas and make our cities nicer places to live.

Stay tuned for more coverage on municipal Wi-Fi. And we've got a Fierce Wi-Fi Summit coming up on February 6.