FCC Bakes Up Free Wi-Fi Connections
By Kevin Werbach, Tue Aug 19 12:30:00 GMT 2003

Quick, what does the Federal Communications Commission have in common with Panera Bread Company, a fast-growing chain of bakery cafes?

The answer has nothing to do with asiago cheese bagels or media consolidation rules. Both organizations announced this month that they were offering free WiFi access for their patrons. While Panera's move might have been expected, the FCC's announcement was a surprise.

That's right; the FCC has gone wireless. The US department that regulates communications has put itself on the leading edge of the unlicensed wireless revolution. It is the first government agency in Washington, DC, and perhaps the world, to offer free WiFi to visitors at its headquarters.

Even more shocking are the terms for access. There is no charge to use the FCC's WiFi network and no login account required. Despite well-publicized fears about Wi-Fi's weak security and alleged opportunities for spammers and hackers, the FCC is comfortable leaving its network open to anyone. The FCC says it will turn over usage logs if demanded by law enforcement. Since users can log in anonymously, though, that is hardly a Big Brother scenario.

When you think about it, the FCC providing WiFi access isn't so strange. The agency's 2000 employees face the same connectivity needs as other office workers. Companies such as Microsoft and Cisco have found that installing WiFi hotspots enhances productivity by allowing workers to remain online when they bring their laptops to conference rooms or other locations. And the FCC headquarters is a public facility. Every day, dozens of lobbyists, reporters, industry executives, analysts, and members of the public arrive for meetings, presentations, and research. The FCC's WiFi network allows them to stay connected.

Yet the symbolic value of the FCC's action can't be overstated. The agency has played a major role in the WiFi success story. Without the FCC's 1985 decision to establish "unlicensed" frequency bands for spread-spectrum devices, there would be no WiFi market. When licensed wireless operators complained that WiFi would dissolve into chaotic interference, or would cause difficulties for their own operations, the FCC declined to intervene. It let the market develop, and allowed equipment manufacturers to deal with interference by building better devices. At the World Radio Conference earlier this summer, the FCC participated in a US delegation that successfully pushed for a global unlicensed allocation in the 5 GHz band. And now the FCC is promoting support for WiFi on its own premises.

If other government facilities follow the FCC's lead, WiFi could become a tool for democracy. Six years ago, the US Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision overturning the notorious Communications Decency Act. Activists from the Center for Democracy and Technology reported the news from the Supreme Court steps using a wireless Ricochet modem from now-defunct Metricom. More recently, what Howard Rheingold calls "smart mobs" have used mobile phones to coordinate mass demonstrations from Seattle to Manila. WiFi provides another mechanism to open up the corridors of power. If bloggers could report live from press conferences, hearings, and other functions, it would help demystify the workings of government.

The FCC's action shows the value of personal experience. FCC Chairman Michael Powell bought a WiFi access point for his own home nearly two years ago so that he could surf the Web from his back porch. Ever since, he has been a champion of the technology. There is simply no substitute for seeing the benefits of free local wireless connectivity first-hand. Which is what makes the FCC's recent action especially important. Thanks to Intel's massive Centrino marketing blitz, most new laptops come with built-in WiFi radios. Visitors to the FCC who didn't even realize they could connect wirelessly may find themselves able to check email, access the Web, or log into their corporate network. There is no better stimulus for future sales of WiFi gear, and no better mechanism to build support for preservation and expansion of unlicensed access.

"This is an example of the Chairman's desire to lead the digital migration by example," says Jonathan Cody, special policy advisor to Chairman Powell. "He wants to demonstrate, first hand, the power and benefits of digital technologies to our visitors."

When it comes to information technology, the FCC hasn't always been a leader. This is an organization that didn't give all its employees personal computers until the 1990s, and retired its rotary phones not long before that. As a government agency with a chronically limited budget, the FCC can be forgiven for not keeping up with leading-edge private companies. All the more reason to take notice when it makes a public commitment to deploy an emerging technology.

Chairman Powell has been roundly criticized for his efforts to deregulate media giants and local telephone monopolies. When it comes to WiFi, though, he's on the side of users. As Powell declared when announcing the FCC's WiFi connectivity: "We're embracing the power of WiFi and the freedom and convenience of Internet access it gives to consumers."

I'll raise my raspberry-cheese croissant to that.

Kevin Werbach is the Founder of the Supernova Group, a technology analysis and consulting firm. He formerly served as FCC Counsel for New Technology Policy and Editor of Release 1.0: Esther Dyson's Monthly Report.