Wireless net access as public good?


I've no desire to see the government get into business doing anything it doesn't already do. But every so often I see a small reminder that wireless networking just might be a huge boon to large parts of the population if it were uiquitous and cheap.

This weeked I flew to Chicago to attend the wedding of a longtime friend and now a current coworker. This, of course, meant I had to fly back to DC. Which, as luck would have it, was covered by thunderstorms. The delay set in motion a series of events that culminated in one of the flight attendants on my plane having to stop work, for she had hit the maximum hours-per-whatever that had been negotiated by her union. Of course, she lives in the DC area, and flew back on our plane with us. But we all had to wait in the plane for an hour and a half while they found another person who could staff the plane to meet FAA guidelines. The plane was one of those small things, with two seats on either side of the aisle and requires you to walk out onto what feels and sounds like the runway itself to board. Meanwhile, the reputation for baggage loss at Dulles had reached legendary proportions. (On one flight for the carrier I was on, 30 of the 49 people on the flight didn't get their baggage when they deplaned.)

Which is all nervous-making to say the least. Connections were being blown entirely. Everyone was asking if their connections in DC were delayed as well, since they understandably wanted to know if they would be able to get out again. The attendant didn't know. The pilot was trying to find an available crew member. And we were sufficiently far away from the terminal that no one could walk over to get an updated list of flights.

We were not, however, too far away for one guy and his bright idea. Airports like O'Hare have been gearing up WiFi like mad. So he powered up his laptop, turned on the wireless card, and got to the website for the air carrier. He patiently looked up everyone's connecting flight numbers to give them the new times of departure. Everyone was thoroughly grateful, and the mood of the plane eased considerably. Even the people who got bad news were resigned, and started making alternate plans calmly.

The airline couldn't do this on its own. But the ability to access the information was a major factor in keeping everyone pretty calm, and in preventing an already uncomfortable event into a shouting match (plenty of which I've seen over the years).

I taught in inner-city Chicago for a year or so, working with kids to develop technology skills. Access to the internet for research, entertainment, and basic communication skills was essential. But it was incredibly expensive for schools to get on their own. Had the issue been just the purchase of lots of wireless cards, it would have been simple. But wiring an old school isn't even a concern when the internet companies don't have local access terminals in the area. Being able to access information, to me, could be a massive shift in how schools perform, the motivation of students, and more. At this point, I have little but anecdotal evidence to support that, but buy me a beer, and I'll walk you through it all.

As the technology improves to expand distance and speed, a lot of money is going to be spent on protecting people from accessing a wireless network (since the wider the coverage, the more potential for free-riders). Sometimes I wonder if the money wouldn't be better spent on protecting individual computers, and making the wireless network something akin to the telephone in reach and ease of access.

But then, I'd never presume to tell the market how it ought to run.


We are trying to find the best place to buy the Iraqi dinar. Can you help me?



It's always nice to see people respond to what you've written.

Ah, you're bending the rules for "public goodness", aren't you?

Let's use the old well-accepted version: 1) the manager of a public good cannot exclude any consumer at a reasonable cost (nonexludability), and 2) all consumers simultaneously enjoy the same identical good (nonrivalry).

Clearly wireless is easily exludable at almost zero marginal cost of exclusion--just require a password. However, rivalry will depend upon three orthogonal factors, which technology is constantly rendering less and less restrictive: 1) proximity to a receiver, 2) the number of simultaneous connections at that receiver, and 3) available bandwidth. Granted, technology is always enlarging the wireless superhighway, but it is also making us use more bandwidth for longer periods...

Still, the ability to manage a network at low cost (i.e. the ability to control who joins a wireless network, and how much data each member can send and receive) seems to make strict "public goodness" out of the question...

As for the Iraqi Dinar, try asking the folks at investorsiraq.com

Caught me on that one. My thinking, I guess, is whether or not it's worth forcing wireless networking in that direction. While it could be easy to restrict access, what might the benefits be of not doing so.? Myself, I tend to think a lot of things we think of as "public goods" could be excludable (including the police force and roads), we just don't do it because we consider it worthwhile to accept the inefficiencies.

Imagine if police only responded to people who made some direct contribution, enabling only them to actually call the station house/911 or whatever. The resources of the police would be serving a much smaller community. And the money could go to better equipment. GPS panic buttons for quicker, non-call response times? And if the rolls of payers was kept private, it might be an interesting sort of deterrent. You don't know if the house you're about to break into is covered, and if it is covered, the police might be more effective because of the better funding, meaning that the probability of getting caught is higher.

But then, a lot of people would get hurt and have no recourse. It's not worth the privatization of all of the police. (They're not a true public good -- a riot in a city pretty much means I can't get one to hear my complaint about a noisy neighbor...but you get my meaning.)

Could the benefits of ubiquitous wireless networking be worth the cost? I don't know. I just see glimpses every so often...

I agree. Nothing is absolutely good for everybody. There is always an advantage and disadvantage to all that we are enjoying now because of technology. - Aldo Disorbo


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This page contains a single entry by published on August 2, 2004 12:09 PM.

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