Access, as we know it, is about to change.
In two weeks, the FCC will vote on rules behind the sale of a sought-after chunk of airwaves. Chairman Kevin Martin wants to include the stipulation that the winning bidder must set aside 25% of the spectrum to roll out free Internet access to 95% of the country.
Is this huge? You bet. How exactly the bulk of the country's population will be canvassed with connectivity remains to be seen. Even if it does pass and a top bidder emerges, the actual roll-out should still be several years away.
However, it's not too early to size up the winners and the losers so that investors can get in -- or out -- early.
Let me go over five of the biggest winners if free Wi-Fi comes to pass.
It's hard to start this list with any other name than Big G. The dot-com giant already commands nearly two-thirds of the country's search queries. As any other company trying to make a mint in cyberspace will tell you, search is where it's at. You're not hitting up a search portal unless you want to go somewhere else, and advertisers pay top dollar for perfectly targeted keyword-based leads.
Google knows the power of access. Why else do you think it was offering to provide coverage throughout San Francisco for free three years ago? Google.com traffic will explode under a nationwide access platform. Sure, folks who can't afford access presently may be less desirable as sponsor leads, but trust Google to make it up in volume in the end.
Most of the winners will naturally be high-traffic websites, but let's make sure we get a hardware winner into the mix. Logitech announced that it shipped its billionth mouse yesterday, but the company makes other accessories that will greatly benefit from free Wi-Fi.
I'm talking about Logitech's strengths in webcams and Internet headphones. One of the biggest benefits of widespread connectivity is that folks will use free software to communicate with friends and families. That is naturally going to crack open the market for broadband communication devices, and Logitech is there with its Web-minded headphones and its huge line of affordable webcams.
If you think the shopping malls are decked in cobwebs and tumbleweed these days, you will probably be able to hear a pin drop in the food court once everyone has access to e-commerce.
Granted, those who lack high-speed access these days aren't going to be voracious shoppers. They watch their pennies. However, that will be great for Amazon's Prime membership program. Once folks are smitten by the two-day free deliveries on a growing range of products, more of their lives will revolve around a trip out to Amazon.com instead of a trek to a vacant shopping center.
Forget eBay.com itself. By the time free access hits the masses, PayPal and perhaps even Skype will be bigger parts of this portfolio of verbs. Heck, even the name eBay may be toast as you crack open the 2012 annual report of SkypePal Incorporated.
Skype and PayPal will be the biggest winners of blanketed coverage. Skype remains the global voice chat leader with 370 million users worldwide. If you don't think that Skype will replace a few landline telephone accounts once connectivity is pervasive, you may as well Skype me to tell me otherwise.
PayPal is already the leader in micro-payments. It will become an even bigger force in real world transactions under Martin's scenario of access for all.
Nintendo (OTC BB: NTDOY.PK)
I need a video game console maker, because gaming is a growing market, and connectivity will allow the platforms to deliver more games digitally (high margins, baby) and to cash in on in-game advertising that is updated online. Nintendo is an easy choice, given its strong role on both the hardware side and its huge library of proprietary titles on the software side.
Yes, I could have gone with Microsoft
Waiting is the hardest part
The winners make sense on paper, but we're still far away from fulfilling Martin's dream of open access. There will also be several losers, and that's where I'll be headed in tomorrow's column.
For now, just know that nearly any company creating content or improving the cyberspace experience is probably in a good position to thrive in the future. The biggest winners will be the sites that are already dominant in their fields like MySpace and Facebook in social networking, Google in search, or The Knot
Ready. Aim. Wait.
Why free connectivity?