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Tech, telecom giants take sides as FCC proposes public Wi-Fi networks

WASHINGTON — The federal government wants to create super Wi-Fi networks across the nation, so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month.

The proposal from the Federal Communications Commission has rattled the $178 billion wireless industry, which has launched a fierce lobbying effort to persuade policymakers to reconsider the idea, analysts say.

That has been countered by an equally intense campaign from Google, Microsoft and other tech giants who say a free-for-all Wi-Fi service would spark an explosion of innovations and devices that would benefit most Americans, especially the poor.

The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing Wi-Fi networks that have become common in households. They could penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees. If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and many rural areas.

The new Wi-Fi networks would also have much farther reach, allowing for a driverless car to communicate to another vehicle a mile away or a patient's heart monitor to connect to a hospital on the other side of town.

If approved by the FCC, the free networks would still take several years to set up. Public Wi-Fi could allow many consumers to make free calls from their mobile phones via the Internet. The frugal-minded could even use the service in their homes, allowing them to cut off expensive Internet bills.

"For a casual user of the Web, perhaps this could replace carrier service," said Jeffrey Silva, an analyst at the Medley Global Advisors research firm. "Because it is more plentiful and there is no price tag, it could have a real appeal to some people."

Objections to the plan have come from companies such as AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Intel and Qualcomm. Some of these companies cautioned that a free Wi-Fi service could interfere with existing cellular networks and TV broadcasts.

Intel, whose chips are used in many of the devices that operate on cellular networks, fears that the new Wi-Fi service would crowd the airwaves.

Tech, telecom giants take sides as FCC proposes public Wi-Fi networks 02/03/13 [Last modified: Sunday, February 3, 2013 11:30pm]
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