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Free Public Wi-Fi? FCC Proposal Could Pit Microsoft Against Cell Carriers

The federal government wants to bring fast, powerful—and free—Internet connections to communities across the nation. Kirkland already offers free Wi-Fi downtown and will upgrade it this spring.

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.

Not all tech companies are against the idea, though. Google, which maintain an office complex in Kirkland, and Redmond-based Microsoft are spending top dollars to lobby in support of the plan, according to a report in The Washington Post. 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.

The city of Kirkland already provides free Wi-Fi in the downtown core and plans on upgrading this year. The city has been asked to expand it to other areas of Kirkland, but budget issues have prevented that.

"We're going to continue to have it downtown for the next four to five years, and by then we probably won't have a need for it," said Brenda Cooper, Kirkland's chief information officer. "If someone else would come in and provide it, that would be great."

Cooper believes upgrades in smart phone technology and accessibility will negate the need for Kirkland's free Wi-Fi in the years to come. The city is upgrading its internal network sometime this spring and will upgrade the free downtown Wi-Fi at that time.

Even if a new super network is 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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