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FCC Wi-Fi plan: What does free really mean?

An ethernet cable is seen at a news conference where it was announced that free Wi-Fi will be provided by Google to the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea on January 8, 2013 in New York City.

Federal regulators may want Wi-Fi Internet connections to get more widespread and powerful, but the government is not giving the service away for free. A Washington Post article has sparked debate this week over what exactly the government is trying to do.

It's true the Federal Communications Commission wants some sections of the radio frequency spectrum to be left up for grabs -- free for companies to provide service, but not necessarily free to consumers. Wireless Internet was first developed on open spectrum just like this.

"We're making a mass migration as a country away from using spectrum for broadcast TV to using it for wireless data because we're all using smartphones," says Susan Crawford, a Roosevelt Institute fellow and author of Captive Audience, a book about telecom policy. "The FCC is going to carry out for spectrum and there will be spaces left between the TV stations that get left behind and some data uses for those frequencies. Those spaces are called "white spaces" and they can be used opportunistically for Wi-Fi, and that's what the FCC is hoping for."

A company called FreedomPop already offers free wireless connections through cell phone and some Wi-Fi technology. Free, that is, until you use more than half a gigabyte of data a month.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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