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Editorial: A big step toward universal internet access

A planned Federal Communications Commission auction of bandwidth on the wireless spectrum has pitted wireless carriers like Verizon and AT&T, that charge hefty fees for access to the internet, against Google, Microsoft and proponents of free, nationwide wireless access. The more bandwidth the FCC sells, presumably to the high-bidding wireless carriers, the more secure their lock on the lion’s share of the market. The more of the airwaves that the FCC sets aside for public use, the more likely free wireless access will become ubiquitous. That would mean more sales of devices offering wireless access, and cheaper and easier communication, whether person to person or machine to machine.

New Hampshire’s congressional delegation should weigh in on the side of those who believe that free nationwide wireless access will spur innovation and shrink the digital divide. Free wireless service would be a boon in rural areas and poor neighborhoods. It would increase entrepreneurship, spark innovation, stimulate the economy and help create jobs.

The price of smart phones and tablet computers continues to drop. A growing number of schools are providing laptop computers or tablets to students, and charities exist that refurbish old computers and donate them or sell them for small sums to low-income households. But for tens of millions of Americans, the high monthly fees charged by cable companies and wireless carriers are unaffordable. Nationwide free WiFi service, even at speeds slower than those enjoyed by those who can afford to pay, would join public roads, parks, schools and libraries as a democratizing force.

Cities such as Chicago are in the process of offering free wireless access in all parks, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to extend free high-speed broadband service throughout the city to spur economic development. Google, which has offered free wireless to much of its home community of Mountain View, Calif., for years, is setting up a free network to serve the New York neighborhood of Chelsea, where the company also has headquarters. It’s also working with Kansas City, Kan., to do the same. Doing so is not just a public-spirited act. The more people use the network to conduct Google searches, the more money the company makes.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski favors opening more of the wireless spectrum up to public use, and the agency’s report on expanding access cites the proliferation of devices like wireless baby monitors, garage door openers, security systems and other technologies that arose to take advantage of the free access. He and his agency are, however, the target of ferocious lobbying by companies that profit from the dominance they enjoy in providing access to the internet. To resist that pressure, the FCC will need to hear from members of the public who want free wireless access and their elected representatives.

Neither the FCC nor any other federal agency is expected to actually provide the wireless networks, save perhaps as economic development measures in rural areas. But municipalities, school districts and businesses will, in what would be a much-expanded version of the free wireless access already available around public libraries and in coffee shops. Such networks, using low-frequency airwaves that pass through trees and buildings, would be adequate for most users and give access to a store of information that now includes the ability to take hundreds of free college courses.

It’s time for the FCC to use its power over the public airwaves to level the technological playing field. It should make it easy to shoot for the goal of providing free internet access to every American, no matter where in the nation they are.

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