Municipal Wireless Catching On?


The second part in Wired's 4-Part feature on Wireless techfocuses on the growth of city-wide wireless networks.

Unusual for Wired, this article is largely superficial and unenlightening, rehashing the arguments into a bland "wireless for EVERYbody!!!" vs. The Curmudgeons Who Always Say Bad Things sort of debate. The author clearly comes out on the side of those who see muni-wireless as a an unalloyed good, fulfilling the basic rights of people everywhere to be able to surf porn at their local coffee-houses on sleek hip-top portables:

That may be true, but many cities also see municipal Wi-Fi as a larger social program. For them, it's a chance to bridge the elusive "digital divide" -- the gulf between those with access to broadband services and those who either can't afford it or simply can't access it from their impoverished part of town.

Philadelphia's Neff said that the city disqualified many vendors early because they didn't share her social goals. "Some just saw it as building a network and missed the social aspects," she said.

Of course, it might have helped to ask if the digital divide is, indeed, due to a lack of connectivity. The image this raises is one of home-after-home in poor neighborhoods staring blankly at a computer screen, letting life slip by for the want of a faster download speed. It may be anecdotal in scope, but after having been part of the founding of a tech-education program in Chicago, I can assure you that the needs go much deeper than finding a decent hot-spot.

And instead of just quoting the one person saying "the economics are crazy", it might have been of some value for the article to delve into why. Just one quick problem: the usage has to be at damn-near optimal levels for the network built. If the usage is too low, the city wasted money on something that isn't useful. If it's too high, the network is overburdened, and you will either have people not using it and paying twice for service (once through taxes and once on a crontract). Of course, the city could try to keep updating it, but it's still tax money that will have to be funneled into upgrading the network at nearly the same pace that demand for bandwidth grows, lest it get outpaced and abandoned by most users. I'd be willing to put hard money down saying that any government's process for reviewing and approving potential upgrades would be slower than a private company's.

My favorite bit from the article, however, is this:

In September, Federal Trade Commission member Jon Leibowitz endorsed (.pdf) the concept of municipal broadband networks, comparing them to public schools and libraries. [Link in original.]

And, as we all know, the public school system -- especially for poor areas of major cities -- is always a favorable comparison.


The economics are "crazy" for a very simple reason: wireless Internet access is not a public good.

And how can there be a "right" to free wireless Internet access without a corresponding "right" to a free laptop?

Yeah, that's the problem with Wired. They can get on bandwagons and produce a bunch of articles that are not well argued propaganda.

I just think about how much money is going to go down the crapper if muni wireless takes off. You get your Skype phone, and you've ruined the cellphone biz, and probably landlines too. Who needs DSL if you have wireless? And check out Aikimbo. That could wipe out cable TV if you've got enough broadband.

It isn't that cellphone, landlines, DSL, and cable should be protected, it's just that they shouldn't be ruined by government imposed Wi-Fi.


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This page contains a single entry by published on October 19, 2005 9:43 AM.

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