America got bamboozled yesterday, courtesy of an unintentional media fabrication: the government is not building a super-fast national Wi-Fi network. A somewhat confusing feature in The Washington Post about a few loosely connected government initiatives about greater access to faster Wi-Fi got twisted into a story about a plan to create a so-called “Super Wi-Fi” network. What ensued looked like a game of telephone between hair-trigger media outlets.
In fairness, I was halfway though regurgitating the myth before my contact at the FCC told me that there was no such plan. Ironically, the story is now more interesting as a case study in how the need to break news has overshadowed fact-checking.
The (not a) super Wi-Fi network was a Frankenstein of two separate initiatives: a plan to open up more wireless spectrum for better Wi-Fi hardware and the potential auction of unused television station spectrum (600 MHz) to the nation’s wireless carriers. Taken together, it’s possible, but highly unlikely, that this would result in a blanket, super-fast Wi-Fi network across most of the country.
Spinning a little spice into the story, the Post seemed to imply that this could result in an unmanaged public Wi-Fi network and combined it with a juicy story of how telecom companies have launched a fierce counter offensive.
As Ars Technica later pointed out, the story was “a grain of truth, exaggerated and repeated.” Headlines quickly snowballed out of control: “FCC Proposes Free Wi-Fi For Everyone In The US,” (Popular Science); “FCC wants free Wi-Fi for all” (The Daily Caller); and “Telecom Corporations Are Trying To Stop The Government From Offering Free ‘Super Wi-Fi'” (Business Insider).
Sacrificing traffic numbers, I waited to hear back from an FCC spokesperson who promptly explained the confusion and issued an official statement:
The FCC’s incentive auction proposal, launched in September of last year, would unleash substantial spectrum for licensed uses like 4G LTE. It would also free up unlicensed spectrum for uses including, but not limited to, next generation Wi-Fi. As the demand for mobile broadband continues to grow rapidly, we need to free up significant amounts of spectrum for commercial use, and both licensed and unlicensed spectrum must be part of the solution.
In other words, there’s likely no national public Wi-Fi network and any plan moving into the future is likely to be a combination of both more advanced technology and private telecommunications companies.
Jeffrey Eisenach of the American Enterprise Institute was less diplomatic, calling the story, “almost entirely fiction.”
I also reached out to The Washington Post, which critics of the piece didn’t seem to do. I never received a full explanation, other than the writer didn’t think the criticism of her piece was accurate, at least as of early yesterday. I suspect we’ll be hearing something soon, given the hubbub.
Even though I was thankfully cautious, it could have easily ensnared me, too. In the scheme of things, critics (and those who waited) ended up losing out on a lot traffic. I probably lost out on even more traffic by not making the The Washington Post out to be the villain. The less sexy truth is that it’s due to an online media environment that unintentionally demands speed over accuracy.
Media drama aside, you’re not getting access to free super-fast Wi-Fi soon. So, pirating Game of Thrones is still going to take just as long.