A recent proposal by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Julius Genachowski, would recover some of the country’s little used radio and TV broadcast radio spectrum in order to create a national public wireless (WiFi) network. Telecommunications companies, which make money selling data plans to enable smart phone and Wi-Fi computer users to access the Internet, are lobbying against the proposal.
Such a network would, of course, be a boon for countless small businesses and Internet-linked technology developers, not to mention the rest of us. But Chairman Gnachowski’s proposal also rests on sound historical and policy precedents.
By international law the federal government is responsible for the private as well as public use within the U.S. of the global radio spectrum—which does not “belong” to anyone any more than the sky or the oceans belong to anyone, not even to “job creators” in the telecom industry.
The digital electronic impulses that bring text and images to the screens of our smart phones and Wi-Fi enabled computers are similar to the analog electromagnetic impulses that Samuel Morse tapped out to send the first telegraph in 1844. Today those digital electronic information “packets” can travel beyond the wires and cables around and above us, carried into remote places by the invisible radio wave spectrum that encircles our globe.
The need for public regulation of the use of radio waves first became obvious in 1912, when radio communications following the Titanic’s distress signals on the night of April 14 were confused, if not unintelligible, thanks to the swarm of amateur radio operators busily working the airwaves. Within a year the Congress had established (with the Radio Act of 1912) that the federal government would regulate both wire-line and wire-less communications, a principle which has stood firm for over a century of statutory action and judicial decision-making.
Those of us who do not yet use the Internet with mobile devices may be tempted to dismiss these increasingly ubiquitous gadgets as fads, high-end toys for grown-ups and over-indulged children. But there is little that we do today that does not at some point involve the use of devices relying on the radio spectrum, from automatic garage door openers to cell phones to the remote controls for our television sets.
More importantly, radio waves provide the essential ‘highways’ to every location for the transmission of news, information, electronic libraries, educational programming, remote medical and research data, and only lastly entertainment. Once upon a time radio waves sent the news to listeners gathered around brown bakelite boxes. Millions more now receive over the air the electronic data that produce text and graphics on their touch screens. And as the technology gets cheaper millions more will join the touch screen world. The telecommunications industry—AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and others—knows this.
But so does the FCC. The Internet was built with public funds, for the use of all Americans. Unless all Americans are able to use it, the open public forum that has served democracy by offering a platform and audience for free speech will become enclosed by proprietary technological and monetary barriers.
The Internet is not intellectually inert. Each webpage contains information and images selected for it by its website ‘builders,’ people who also decide which links to further—and possibly contrary or controversial—information will be included, or not. Our best assurance of an Internet that disseminates a continual conversation of new as well as old voices, rather than an ongoing chorus of the like-minded, is a genuinely publicly accessible Wi-Fi network.
Like the operators of all public utilities, Wi-Fi operators will need to receive reasonable compensation as incentives for efficiency and innovation. But you and I, not industry CEOs, should decide what is reasonable.
The big telecommunications companies will be spending bundles of money to persuade us—and lawmakers—that Wi-Fi is a commercial service coupled to their commercial products, access to which should be priced in the marketplace. And they will be wrong.