Designed by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, the plan would be a global first. When the U.S. government made a limited amount of unlicensed airwaves available in 1985, an unexpected explosion in innovation followed. Baby monitors, garage door openers and wireless stage microphones were created. Millions of homes now run their own wireless networks, connecting tablets, game consoles, kitchen appliances and security systems to the Internet.
"Freeing up unlicensed spectrum is a vibrantly free-market approach that offers low barriers to entry to innovators developing the technologies of the future and benefits consumers," Genachowski said in a an e-mailed statement.
Some companies and local cities are already moving in this direction. Google is providing free Wi-Fi to the public in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and parts of Silicon Valley.
Cities support the idea because the networks would lower costs for schools and businesses or help vacationers easily find tourist spots. Consumer advocates note the benefits to the poor, who often cannot afford expensive cellphone and Internet bills.
The proposal would require local television stations and other broadcasters to sell a chunk of airwaves to the government that would be used for the public Wi-Fi networks. It is not clear whether these companies would be willing to do so.
The FCC's plan is part of a broader strategy to re-purpose entire swaths of the nation's airwaves to accomplish a number of goals, including bolstering cellular networks and creating a dedicated channel for emergency responders.
Some Republican lawmakers have criticized Genachowski for his idea of creating free Wi-Fi networks, noting that an auction of the airwaves would raise billions for the U.S. Treasury.
That sentiment echoes arguments made by companies such as AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Intel and Qualcomm that wrote in a letter to FCC staff late last month that the government should focus its attention on selling the airwaves to businesses.