If it's too good to be true, it probably isn't true. We've all heard that truism, and it applies to the recent media firestorm around a federal initiative to offer nationwide, fast Wi-Fi for free. It's simply not true, a story based on amazingly substandard reporting and editing at a major national newspaper and the uncritical acceptance by much of the blogosphere.
What is true is that the feds are looking for ways to take some unused spectrum and make it available to Wi-Fi devices -- spectrum that penetrates buildings better and thus extends Wi-Fi's reach. That's good news, but what people really need to understand is the story of how this outrageously false story came to be, what the feds are really trying to do with Wi-Fi, and why carrier resistance to it is part of a bigger threaten to the Internet we know today. So here we go.
[ Carrier greed threatens the affordable Internet access we all depend on and could kill Internet video, argues InfoWorld's Galen Gruman. | For the latest in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter. ]
The origins of the "free nationwide super Wi-Fi" false report
If you're a parent, you know about magical thinking, even if you didn't know it was called that. When kids really, really want something to be true, in their minds it becomes true, as if by magic. That's OK for children, but it doesn't make a lot of sense for adults, particularly for professional technology writers and the legions of bloggers who follow the industry.
Sure, all of us would love to have free Wi-Fi wherever we go. So when the usually sensible Cecilia Kang of the Washington Post wrote a story saying that the federal government wants to create "super Wi-Fi networks" across the country that people could access for free, the blogosphere and the mainstream stream press lit up like a 1,000-watt bulb.
Even juicier, the story asserted that the proposal had "rattled" the wireless industry, and it was waging a "fierce" lobbying campaign to derail it. Yeah, those evil, money-grubbing carriers fighting to abort super Wi-Fi, that could, like Superman, penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees.
Who could resist that story? Almost no one. It was all over the Internet soon after it was posted, and I'll bet the Post got more hits on that story than anything it's published about the fiscal cliff or killer drones. Even the New York Times ate it up. "Imagine a free Wi-Fi network spanning the country. The feds want it to happen, wireless cos don't," Times media reporter Brian Stetler tweeted.
It was of course, total nonsense. The FCC proposed nothing of the sort. There won't be a free, nationwide, super Wi-Fi network -- not now or probably ever.
Not to be mean, but Kang's editors must have been out to lunch when they read her story. How can anyone who knows anything about business not ask a few very simple questions: Who's going to pay for this? Why build something hugely expensive and not charge for it?
Another obvious question: How come, when you go to the FCC's website, you can't find a report or a press release trumpeting free Wi-Fi? I noticed immediately that there was no link to a report in Kang's story nor a quote from a proud commissioner. How could you think that the FCC would propose such a revolutionary program, then say nothing about it?