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FCC's Public WiFi Proposal May Not Change Much Locally

The federal government wants to bring fast, powerful—and free—Internet connections to communities across the nation.

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed a plan that would create super Wi-Fi networks all around the country—and threaten the viability of big-name cell-phone carriers and Internet providers, according to a report in The Washington Post this week.

Proponents argue such networks would lower costs for schools and businesses or help visitors easily find hot spots. In Enumclaw, several local businesses that cater to locals and visitors alike already offer free Wi-Fi to customers, including Rainier Bar & Grill, Monticello Coffee Bar, Mountain Aire Mercantile and The Salt Shaker. And there's also always Starbucks.

Enumclaw Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kelvin Schipper said a super network could open up new marketing opportunities, but the existing model of individual businesses offering Wi-Fi would appear to be more beneficial. "I see people coming looking for Wi-Fi hot spots where they stay and work from," he said. "I think that if they aren't locked down to one location for the Internet, I don't see them staying at the business as long."

The limitations of the current open Wi-Fi networks are why Chad Marlowe, technology coordinator at the Enumclaw School District said the district may not utilize a public Wi-Fi network.

Citing immediate issues with security, reliability and filtering and logging of student access, Marlowe said chances are if free Wi-Fi did one day become reality, "we would probably handle it how we handle open Wi-Fi and cell data services now...you're welcome to connect to it with your personal equipment and even district-owned. However, we would never bridge our network to a free, open Wi-Fi," he said.

The thoughts are similar at the city level. While free Wi-Fi could help the general public share information more easily, "we'd have to continue to rely on existing Internet providers due to cyber security reasons," said City Administrator Mike Thomas. "I don't see the city as a beneficiary of a free system."

The Washington Post reports that despite obvious conflicts, not all tech companies are against the idea. Google and Redmond-based Microsoft are spending top dollars to lobby in support of the plan because they believe free Wi-Fi would help drive further innovation and provide a market for more gadgets.

Cellular carriers like Bellevue-based T-Mobile are not as supportive. The Post reports that the FCC wants to buy airwaves that are more powerful than a typical household Wi-Fi connection, making it possible that people could opt out of traditional cell phone coverage.

Indeed, rendering cell phone service obsolete might be of benefit to remote areas including Greenwater, where last year, The News Tribune reported an campaign effort was underway to have cell towers installed if for nothing else than community safety - and particular in the winter.

Even if it's approved by the FCC, The Post says the new network would still take several years to implement. And it's unclear how reliable the connection would be in urban areas, where many people might be using the free Wi-Fi system at the same time.

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Do you think government-provided Wi-Fi would be good for your local community? Why or why not? Tell us in the comments section.

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