Means-Tested Wireless?

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Tom Palmer notes that DC is looking to establish municipal wi-fi -- with the kicker that the company that best serves the poor will win the contract.

We've been somewhat ambivalent about the municipal wi-fi trend here at T&B. Current telecom markets and companies are creatures of layered regulation, and it's likely that strong-armed and cunning local government intervention could produce short-run price and product enhancements in such an environment. Yet I'm unconvinced that DC has the skills to get such a bargain. And I'm even more unconvinced that universal wi-fi will change the economic character of any city: businesses will not move, jobs will not be created, wages will not be raised, the bulk of the truly poor will not be substantially better off. After all, as Ian has noted, "a phone line is all that's needed to take credit card transactions". And even more on point:

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.

I am leaning towards the idea that "serve the poor" contract request made by DC, by letting companies potentially bundle hardware offers with wi-fi service, will lead to a higher rate-of-return business for the contractor, and lower-than-desirable bandwidth for end users. I think many, if not most, private wireless hotspot owners will not switch once the new network is in place (though I can't wait to see what happens elsewhere). In short, the public economics of the Mayor's plan are questionable.

But the justification given in this particular case, free provision to the poor, sounds both compelling and unlikely-to-really be useful, so I decided to look into the latter.

The first thing I concluded is that I simply do not believe Mayor Williams:

"Access to technology is like access to books: it's an important medium of communication and learning and opportunity," Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said yesterday in an interview. "Other cities are doing it and I want our city doing it too."

Yes, other cities are doing it. But if access to technology is truly like access to books, why not put free wi-fi -- and even hardware to use it -- in just the public libraries -- you know, where the poor people who want to learn are likely to be found? Where are cost-effectiveness tradeoffs? Where are the studies demonstrating that such wireless systems actually do close the real digital divide?

The second thing I concluded is that -- since this is DC -- there MUST be a duplication of service with at least one other public agency. On a hunch, I looked at the DC library website. And lo and behold, DC is already planning separate wireless networks for the library system!

“The interim libraries we are setting up in storefronts will be a window into the future of libraries,” said Francis J. Buckley, Jr., interim director of the D.C. Public Library. “We want to demonstrate in these interim branches the state-of-the-art library services residents will have available once their new facilities are open.”

The interim storefronts will house high-tech libraries that will host up to three times as many public access computers as were available in the old branches. They will provide wireless computing capability...

This library-centric method seems like the right approach to me if one is addressing educational inequalities. But that's not why many people use (or, I gather, would like to use) the internet. They want to be a part of a wider social community -- to hang out, to have fun. If you want to address inequalities of email savvy, blogging, music downloading, myspace sharing, or pr0n access -- things either easier to do or best done at home on private computers -- then municipal wi-fi seems like a solid starting point.

2 Comments

Interesting points. I'd not heard of the free-to-the-poor model before. (I wonder about the actual "testing" part of means testing. Would it be possible for the students at DC's universities and colleges to claim being poor -- they are, after all -- in order to get free wireless when they decide to live off-campus?) And bundling technology at least makes the expenditure more directly applicable to the problem; that is, addressing gaps in technology skills aside from surfing websites.

Two things: 1) There is some debate about whether computers really do anything at all for education. If it doesn't help in structured learning environments, what do we really think it will do for people eating cereal in front of American Idol and chatting on AIM all night?

2) Don't we all really know what the internet is for?

I should have been clear that I think they'll have to means-test individual accounts, as opposed to relying solely on zero-price zones, like the WaPo article suggests.

The first link of yours is sensible. They primary way I learned by using computers was by teaching myself to program in BASIC. I dbout that's a common occurence.

And your second link is LOL hilarious!

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This page contains a single entry by Kevin published on March 9, 2006 1:36 PM.

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