I popped into a coffeeshop the other day to get my brain jump-started, and I saw a sign that stopped me cold: “No Wi-Fi.” That’s the history of the millennial era in two words: The day before yesterday there was no such thing as wireless Internet access. Then it became available, usually for a pretty stiff usage fee. (Remember the dark ages of having to rely on Boingo at the airport? Oh, wait . . . if you fly out of LaGuardia, you’re still in the dark ages. More about that in a minute.) Then wireless got so cheap that it became available as a courtesy in public spaces, and coffeeshops and the like began to offer it as a basic amenity, like restrooms or comfortable chairs. Up went the signs: “Free Wi-Fi.” Pretty soon, you could log on for free at McDonald’s while sucking down all 1,160 calories in your supersized shake. And then a funny thing happened: The “Free Wi-Fi” signs went away. The new sign was the invisible sign: “Of course we have wireless — what do you think this is, Waziristan?”
And now wireless Internet access has become so ubiquitous, so cheap, so convenient, that the odd establishment that for whatever economic or aesthetic reason declines to offer the amenity to its customers feels compelled to advertise the absence of what didn’t exist only a few years ago. It’s like a sign reading “No Public Restroom.”
The regulatory reform that led to the creation of wireless Internet connections — the brand name Wi-Fi became, for a while, something like “Levi’s” or “Xerox,” a generic name for a category of products, though that seems to have faded in favor of “wireless” — generally is dated to a 1985 decision by the FCC allowing unlicensed use of what is known as the ISM (industrial, scientific, medical) spectrum. In fact, the regulatory-reform process really began in 1938, shortly after the FCC’s founding, as Kenneth R. Carter of WIK-Consult GmbH explains in his paper “Unlicensed to kill: a brief history of the Part 15 rules.” The FCC was faced with two problems: The first is that practically every electronic device emits some kind of signal into the regulated spectrum; the second is that firms in the 1930s already were selling low-powered, short-range communication devices that technically encroached on the licensed spectrum. As the FCC’s chief engineer wrote in 1938, “If certain low power devices can be used without interfering with radio communications, there would appear to be no engineering reason for suppressing their use.”
That was during the Roosevelt administration. The wheels of regulatory reform move slowly, and it wasn’t until the Reagan administration that the FCC finally got around to promulgating the rules that made wireless Internet possible. The main problem the FCC faces in most of its regulatory endeavors, as Carter explains, is preventing a tragedy of the commons in the ether, which would manifest itself in high levels of signal interference. (One wades into this nest of techno-legal complications with some hesitancy; the issues are by no means open to obvious resolutions derived from political ideology.) If no limitations are placed upon the consumption of a common good, then there is no individual price to pay for consumption that reduces the overall social good. In theory, Carter argues, the FCC’s decision to allow unlicensed devices should have created a mess; in practice, the restriction of unlicensed use to low-powered devices has minimized the practical effects, keeping interference for the most part at trivial levels.
The FCC’s rules have their admirers and their critics, but in any case they provide an instructive example of the Hayekian observation that rules need not be perfect so long as they are predictable and stable. Once the 1985 regime was put into place, both private firms (notably AT&T) and public organizations (including Australia’sCommonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) went busily to work, engaging in the usual marketplace experimentation that is the source of most meaningful material progress. One of AT&T’s early partners was NCR Corp., the firm formerly known as National Cash Register, which developed a wireless product for point-of-sale systems. Some products succeeded, some failed, quality went up, prices went down, and wireless Internet became simply another unremarkable feature of the environment.