Blown To Bits

How Did Wi-Fi Happen?

Sunday, October 5th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

A couple of weeks ago, John McCain’s top economic adviser held up a Blackberry and proclaimed,

“He did this. Telecommunications of the United States is a premier innovation in the past 15 years — comes right through the Commerce Committee — so you’re looking at the miracle John McCain helped create, and that’s what he did.”

The next day the campaign characterized this statement as a “boneheaded joke.” So be it. Everybody has to disown their surrogates’ statements from time to time.

But a related claim appears on the McCain campaign’s Web site, on the Technology Issues page.

He is the former chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The Committee plays a major role in the development of technology policy, specifically any legislation affecting communications services, the Internet, cable television and other technologies. Under John McCain’s guiding hand, Congress developed a wireless spectrum policy that spurred the rapid rise of mobile phones and Wi-Fi technology that enables Americans to surf the web while sitting at a coffee shop, airport lounge, or public park.

Now the success of Wi-Fi is an important example of what spectrum deregulation can make possible. And the explosive growth of of Wi-Fi as a consumer product did in fact happen during years when McCain was chair of the Senate Commerce Committee (for the record, from 1997-2001 and 2003-2005). But what happened to Wi-Fi policy during these years? Basically nothing.

As readers of Chapter 8 of Blown to Bits know, the important policy step happened two decades earlier, under the administration of Jimmy Carter, of all people. That is when forces within the FCC started to push for unlicensed use of a small spectrum band — they wound up using a 100MHz band starting at 2.4GHz, because it was mostly used for microwave ovens, not communication technologies, so fewer parties would complain about the risks of “interference.”

What happened in the late 1990s was not new spectrum policy, but the inexorable advance of Moore’s Law to the point where wireless processing could occur in home computers and hundred-dollar wireless routers. So unless McCain’s guiding hand helped pass Moore’s Law, this claim seems utterly groundless. (Perhaps someone could ask him to explain it.)

Thanks to Michael Marcus for pointing this out.

One Response to “How Did Wi-Fi Happen?”

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