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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Filed Under: municipal wireless, wifi

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  1. identicon
    Brad, 28 Sep 2007 @ 7:49pm

    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.

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