Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The State of Municipal Wi-Fi...

Anyone who has sat down in Bryant Park on a sunny day in the past few years has noticed a burgeoning trend - scores of people using laptops to connect to the internet wirelessly in public places. This is the result of Municipal Wi-Fi, which refers to public policies that provide residents with low-cost or free wireless internet access. However the politics of wi-fi are heating up, and the questions remain: 1) "Is it good public policy?" and 2) "Who will pay for it?".

The potential upsides of Municipal Wi-Fi are that it is approximately 10 times cheaper for cities to build than cable broadband lines, it can enhance business opportunities and economic development for inner cities, and that rural areas can finally access the high-speed web in places where the telecom companies have been slow to roll out broadband services.

On the downside, however, the telecommunications industry argues that Municipal Wi-Fi is less reliable and can be up to 5 times slower than cable, offering low-cost or even free internet access through city-owned systems is an unfair advantage over private firms and would stifle competition, and that the government acting as an ISP would create all sorts of new regulations and raise fundamental First Amendment censorship and privacy issues.

Furthermore, who will foot the bill for such multimillion dollar wi-fi systems - not only creating them, but also operating them after the fact? As this article reports, there seem to be three options. First, local governments can provide full-blown wi-fi access directly. Second, cities can provide it for free by making deals with companies in exchange for running ads during its use (as San Francisco is doing with Google and Yahoo). Third, cities can establish public-private partnerships, as Philadelphia is doing with EarthLink, where EarthLink owns and operates the network while the city contributes money or light poles to nest wi-fi routers. Philadelphia's new nonprofit agency will oversee EarthLink's activities to ensure digital inclusion programs, such as discounts for low-income residents off the $21.95 subscription price.

Larger political ideological questions remain. Is providing universal internet access the proper role of government? It's hard to make that case and simultaneously not have a problem paying for electricity, telephone, gas, heat, water, or other utilities essential to modern life. Personally, it makes me a little nervous to send emails and surf the web on a system owned and operated by the government. Such a system is ripe for privacy abuses. I also wonder how local governments will address balancing First Amendment protections against censorship with protecting children from obscene online material through filters. Public libraries have had tremendous difficulty in doing so over the past decade already.

Ultimately, Municipal Wi-Fi and universal internet access may demonstrate to be socially beneficial and help to close the Digital Divide within our society. Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, with over 300 local governments already rolling out wi-fi systems and others looking to stay competitive, at the very least it appears that Municipal Wi-Fi is on its way.


At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bryant Park is not an example of municipal Wi-Fi, but rather community wireless. It was set up and is maintained by volunteers from NYCWireless, without support from the City.

Municipal wireless does not require the City to be an ISP. Many cities are contracting for network management and ISP services from private companies.

San Francisco is not provideing free wireless Internet access in partnership with Google and Yahoo. It is seeking to enter a "public-private patnership" (perhaps better called a franchise) with Earthlink, which would sell basic retail accounts for $22 per month. Google would pay Earthlink for access to the network, and use that access to provide ad-supported, free-to-the-user access.

Finally, local government involvement with a network does not "raise fundamental First Amendment censorship and privacy issues." Just the opposite. Given that the federal government has declared that cable and phone information networks are no longer common carriers, publicly owned networks may be our last chance for open, neutral networks.

If you're really interested in this issue, get in touch with NYCWireless, or visit http://www.newrules.org/info


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