Revisiting The Muni-WiFi Debate

from the let's-go-back-a-step dept

Over the past few years there’s been an ongoing debate over the question of muni-wireless offerings, with most people falling into one of two camps: either totally against muni-broadband (to the extreme point of proposing laws against allowing it) or completely for it (to the extreme point of suggesting it’s a natural right to have free WiFi). I don’t fall into either camp, but tend to fall into the middle. I have no problem with municipal broadband offerings when there’s a clear market failure. That is, when (for whatever reasons) incumbent providers are not doing enough to provide the service — which may exist in quite a few places. Then, if the people want it, it seems perfectly reasonable, depending on how it’s implemented. However, I do have a problem with the idea that every city needs to have municipally supported broadband.

Tim Wu’s latest article for Slate discusses why he believes muni-WiFi offerings have been such a flop lately and it includes a few problematic assumptions. He completely brushes over the question of why muni-WiFi needs to exist, saying “The basic idea of offering Internet access as a public service is sound.” But is it? I recognize the fact that there are natural monopolies to deal with, but that still doesn’t necessarily mean that the government needs to provide broadband as a utility. It absolutely can just be about providing the right of way and then allowing private competition.

Wu’s argument also brushes over the fact that WiFi really isn’t the right technology for this sort of thing. Yes, he’s right that it works on college campuses, but it’s not perfect there, and college campuses are a lot smaller than most cities. Given the right technologies (and more are on the way) it is possible to set up better wireless coverage without the same problems. Wu’s conclusions that cities need to take over muni-WiFi projects and make them truly city supported makes a lot less sense when you add back in those two things. Not every city needs a municipal broadband connection and it’s way too early to call all of the efforts failures, because better technology is coming along that will make it possible to offer wide area broadband at a more reasonable cost — without the government needing to get involved.

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Comments on “Revisiting The Muni-WiFi Debate”

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RandomThoughts (user link) says:

Earthlink found out that the build it and they will come doesn’t really cut it. You would laugh if you knew how many people actually used Philly’s muni network.

No one at Earthlink ever built a business case around this. They were shown that it wouldn’t work, but they didn’t listen. Cities don’t want to pay for it, so what are we left with?

At least Philly can hook their survelience cameras in the network now.

Brad says:

WiFi as a public service

WiFi as a public service is fine. However, look at the government’s track record. Do you really want your local city telling you what you can and can’t do? Do you really think the city can provide a viable service? Look at municipal cable. Of the communities that have muni cable, the service is terrible. The selection is worse, and upgrades are few and far between. People I’ve talked to have switched to satellite because they’re sick and tired of the bureaucracy and inefficiency of anything that comes from the municipality.
WiFi might be less of a disaster in that the muni isn’t providing content, but it could be worse in that the muni has no clue how to finance the project, maintain it, and repair it/update it when it needs it. Most cities can barely keep library books in the local library.
Frankly, I’d much rather have 2 or 3 different providers come in and compete on price and features. Then I can let the almighty dollar do the talking.

Arochone says:

Re: WiFi as a public service

Where are you living that you have a choice of 2 or 3 different providers that are competing? I have a choice of cable or 56k. That’s it. And I have two choices of packages from cable, very slow upload decent download, or very slow upload slightly faster download. I was considering spending an extra $40 a month for a business package to get better upload speeds, until I discovered that the business package was the exact same package I already had. I had no internet between 5PM and 10PM for a month until they finally decided, after about 10 support calls, to send someone out to look at it. Turned out my modem was broken. Again. There’s no way a muni network could be worse than that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Missing service

Service? The one most important feature missing is unlimited (uncensored) bidirectional Internal Access. Back in the days of Windows 95 a small company called Microsoft discovered the Internet and even envisioned a world where we run for example a web server on our own computers. But now there are Internet Service Providers blocking all inbound traffic, and they compensate for the lack of true Internet access with soemthing they call “webspace”, a piece of nonsense that would not exist without their blockade. Of course the ISPs’ “webspace” is controlled by the ISPs and paid for by the customers, who pay extra for additional “webspace”.
But somehow I doubt that Muni-WiFi would break a local ISP monopoly which most of us are facing (or duopoly, not that it makes any difference). So, I say to hell with ISPs, Muni-WiFi and let us build our own mesh without Chinese walls.

Michael Long says:


I’m against it. In fact, as you said in the article on the government “supporting” newspapers, the idea horrifies me.

Do we want our government actually running our networks? Do we think that they won’t be pressured, or feel free, to monitor what happens on them?

How long will it take before some “civic-minded” group decides to petition a government run service to block porn, or hate speech, or sex education, or foreign information services, or whatever the favorite scapegoat-de-jour? After all, why should our tax dollars support “that” kind of access?

And if a “free” government service puts a local broadband company out of business, what options are left?

Anonymous Coward says:

A better idea

As others have said, Muni-suppilied Internet can force paid-for service providers out of a small area. I can’t see this happening in places like NYC or Chicago, but in smaller cities they might not be able to compete with a free service. Given that, they will pull out of those areas and the people there are forced to use the (most likely mismanaged) muni-provided Internet access. This would force everyone to use the muni internet, even those that want to pay for a better service.

I understand Internet access is important enough that everyone should have access, even those that can’t pay for it. So why don’t local governments work out a deal with carriers to provide free Internet access to poor families?

Carriers could provide discounts and it will be good PR for them because of the charity aspect. They could also load the service with a reasonable amount of ads. This could result in less money spent for the local municipality than setting up and managing a wireless network.

bill says:


If the government waits for better tech. they will always be waiting. If they jump on it now and use the government’s resources to improve the tech. it will move at a greater pace.
The idea that internet access isn’t an essential tool is almost ignorance. Every kid in school is required to use it and almost every job now deals with the internet in one case or another. If the government steps up it will generate a more
productive and more informed society. I can’t imagine that we need to put a price tag on that.

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