The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing WiFi 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 and many rural areas.
The new WiFi networks would also have much greater 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. And, with no one actively managing them, connections could easily become jammed in major cities. But public WiFi 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.
Designed by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, the plan would be a global first. When the U.S. government made a limited amount of unlicensed airwaves available in 1985, an unexpected explosion in innovation followed. Baby monitors, garage door openers, and wireless stage microphones were created.
Some Republican lawmakers have criticized Genachowski for his idea of creating free WiFi networks, noting that an auction of the airwaves would raise billions for the U.S. Treasury.
That sentiment echoes arguments by companies including AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Intel and Qualcomm that wrote in a letter to FCC staff late last month that the government should focus its attention on selling the airwaves to businesses.