As a sign of a very rapidly approaching tidal shift in mentality and leadership in the White House, a terrific piece of legislation is now before Congress – despite President Bush’s best efforts, of course – that could provide free Wi-Fi access to everybody in the nation as soon as this year.
Put simply, a big chunk of radio spectrum will be auctioned off by the FCC this year after it’s vacated by television broadcasters who are federally mandated to switch to hard-wired digital broadcasting this month. According to the FCC’s new legislation, whoever buys the white space would have to set aside 25% of it for no-fee service, helping rural areas that don’t currently have broadband access.
Current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who has been the biggest supporter of the initiative, is being replaced when President-elect Obama takes office and cleans house, but he’s leaving office with the national Wi-Fi project as well-positioned as possible. Furthermore, although free national Wi-Fi faces tough opposition from the telecom lobbyists, Obama has said that bringing Internet access to every American is a fundamental part of his technology policy.
A major hurdle was cleared recently when Martin agreed to drop a filtering stipulation, which in any context is a scary concept, especially given the current administration’s shredding of the Constitution. But this one was the scariest of all: Martin’s stipulation was meant to block pornography and other illicit sites. To hell with First Amendment issues – when you start interfering with a man’s ability to masturbate, all bets are off.
Several consumer and civil liberty groups opposed the Web filtering requirement, no doubt remembering the loophole-raping that our rights took by the Bush administration. They warned that the filter could potentially allow the government to block any content it finds objectionable. Martin told Ars Technica that he didn’t want the Web filtering provision to kill the whole proposal, so he took it out.
"I’m saying if this is a problem for people, let’s take it away," Martin told Ars Technica. "A lot of public interest advocates have said they would support this, but we’re concerned about the filter. Well, now there’s an item in front of the Commissioners and it no longer has the filter. And I’ve already voted for it without the filter now. So it’s already got one vote."
The FCC canceled their December 18th meeting to discuss the future of Martin’s proposal. After Senator Jay Rockefeller and Congressman Henry Waxman intervened with the ridiculous distraction that FCC focus on the Digital Television Transition rather than new projects, the FCC lacked a consensus to move forward with the Wi-Fi plan.
Here’s hoping that free national Wi-Fi is one promise Mr. Obama steps up and delivers on.