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No Free Super WiFi, But the US Still Needs Improved WiFi Coverage

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The FCC has long battled for a more efficient deployment of unused spectrum, endeavouring to adapt rules governing 'white space' TV spectrum (largely gifted to broadcasters years ago, and generally in the 700MHz band) to newly released spectrum (in the 600MHz band). This will considerably improve wireless broadband coverage where it is needed most — predominantly in rural areas of the country which can benefit from the propagation characteristics of lower-band spectrum, but also in municipalities which struggle against the commercial interests of a small number of telcos and broadcasters.

Certainly, in the US's disjointed broadband sector there are considerable challenges ahead: telcos and broadcasters have lobbying clout to influence policy makers, and have weighed in against unlicensed spectrum. Any progress in the FCC's proposals could be many years away. Regulatory amendments and new legislation will take time, while technologies which can fully exploit WiFi's potential in these bands are either nascent or not yet developed.

Greater consumer use of wireless broadband in recent years has heightened the call for wider spectrum availability. An increasing number of connections in public hotspots are via handheld devices (smartphones, tablets etc), whereas only a few years ago access was almost exclusively via laptops.

In common with this growing demand, municipalities are increasingly promoting broadband as an essential service along the lines of infrastructure such as water and power, which are now taken for granted. Although there are numerous cities with WiFi networks accessible to the public, citywide or near citywide coverage tends to be restricted to government use, such as for public safety and to improve efficiency within government departments.

Though cities and towns across the US have been exploring ways to fund and build WiFi infrastructure it has not been easy, given the financial challenges and the blocking strategies employed by the powerful telecoms industry which has in at least 19 states pushed for laws blocking or preventing municipalities from offering WiFi or broadband services.

There is some reason for encouragement, though. Following the FCC's approval of the use of white space spectrum at the end of 2011, the first public 'WhiteFi' network went live in North Carolina early in 2012. The service was initially deployed for municipal functions (such as surveillance cameras and transmitting water quality data), and made use of several frequencies.

Yet this has been a rare success. In contrast, Seattle in mid-2012 aborted its plan for a citywide WiFi network after a decade of feasibility studies. The network was intended to offset the near monopoly of Comcast for internet services in the area. The city authorities subsequently reached an agreement with Gigabit Squared to develop and operate an FttH broadband network, dubbed Gigabit Seattle, initially in 12 areas.

The project, with immense potential to stimulate business opportunities and employment, as well as a range of related advancements in health care, education and public services, fits well with the FCC's recent 'Gigabit City Challenge', aimed at encouraging broadband providers and state and municipal officials to cooperate in developing faster networks to drive innovation, economic growth and competitiveness.

At present the challenge calls for one community in each state to offer a 1Gb/s service by 2015. Given sufficient traction and favourable economic and regulatory conditions, gigabit cities should become commonplace, building on pioneering deployments such as Kansas City and Chattanooga.

Regarding both FttH and WiFi, the US needs greater regulatory control and government involvement if schemes beneficial to the nation are not to wither on the vine of corporate interest.

Written by Henry Lancaster, Senior Analysts at Paul Budde Communication

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More under: Access Providers, Broadband, Policy & Regulation, Telecom, White Space, Wireless

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