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WiFi -- New Technologies, New Policy Needs


Wireless broadband offers a promising alternative to existing telephone and cable connections to the Internet.  Wireless networks can be less expensive to build than wired networks, reach more remote areas, and provide needed price competition to these two big telecom players.  The most common wireless broadband technology is WiFi (short for Wireless Fidelity), but new technologies are quickly developing to fill WiFi's shortcomings.

WiFi Brings the Internet Home

WiFi has exploded in popularity since the standard was developed in 1999.  Analysts estimate that sales of WiFi units — which include access points for the home and interface cards for computers and handheld devices — will increase at a compound rate of 66% each year to 226 million units in 2008.   But all wireless devices use radio waves to communicate and transmit data back and forth; and the spectrum available for WiFi devices is getting crowded.

Why is WiFi Different

Neither consumers nor companies have to apply — or pay — for government licenses to use the airwaves for WiFi.  Organizations such as the New America Foundation argue for fair and efficient allocation of the airwaves. Free Press explains how WiFi technology works and how community wireless networks can beat the big companies at providing low-cost high-speed Internet access. 

Because unlicensed spectrum is currently open to most comers, manufacturers can innovate on how to use those airwaves -- developing products like cordless phones, WiFi, Bluetooth, microwave ovens, and more.  Monopolies, are unlikely to sprout up since no one company has control over the unlicensed airwaves.  This fosters competition and innovation and lower prices for consumers.

Learn more about the ways that community co-ops, non-profits, and governments are building the wireless future visit's Connected Project.

Spectrum is a Limited Resource

But the spectrum WiFi uses is not only getting crowded, the signals are also technically unable to travel very far.  Those who want wireless Internet to challenge established providers, like the telephone and cable companies, argue that wireless needs more spectrum in order to help consumers to cut a monopoly's cord and still connect to the Internet.  In order for community groups, neighborhoods and cities to use WiFi to truly stand up and challenge the cable and telephone giants, they need a variety of spectrum at different frequencies for different purposes. 

Efforts are underway to convince Congress and the FCC to reallocate vacant spectrum that is currently devoted to television stations.  For example, all of the spectrum in TV broadcast channels 2-69 are off-limits for other uses, even though your city might only have 7 or 8 broadcast TV stations.  Advocates for unlicensed spectrum suggest the unused channels could be used for unlicensed wireless Internet.

Bringing Broadband to Rural America through Wireless

A number of public interest and advocacy organizations have identified wireless services as an important area to push the government to promote more rapid deployment of broadband service.  For example, a recent report by the Appalachian Regional Commission discusses the promise of wireless broadband for rural America. The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee also held a hearing on the potential applications of wireless technologies in rural areas.

Given the importance of affordable universal broadband services, consumers should not be on the sidelines in these debates.