Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bye-bye to municipal wi-fi?

When I lived in Philadelphia, the announcement of a free or low-cost municipal wi-fi network was an exciting development. It represented an innovative infrastructural investment that spurred other cities around the country to take up similar projects. But as an article in today's New York Times makes clear, these projects were flawed from the start and are stagnating because they were based on a "public-private partnership," for-profit model that was not truly municipal. The networks were not to be owned and operated strictly by the city but would be contracted out to private tech firms, namely Earthlink. From the article:

“The entire for-profit model is the reason for the collapse in all these projects,” said Sascha Meinrath, technology analyst at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit research organization in Washington.

Mr. Meinrath said that advocates wanted to see American cities catch up with places like Athens, Leipzig and Vienna, where free or inexpensive Wi-Fi already exists in many areas.
He said that true municipal networks, the ones that are owned and operated by municipalities, were far more sustainable because they could take into account benefits that help cities beyond private profit, including property-value increases, education benefits and quality-of-life improvements that come with offering residents free wireless access.

Benefits beyond private profit? What a novel idea!

Nobody expects to make a profit out of public transit but it's a necessary piece of any community's infrastructure and that's why government government has to put up the money for it. The same idea applies to investing in free or low-cost high-speed Internet access. Unfortunately many cities such as Philadelphia simply don't have the capital budgets to make such investments. That's why it's probably necessary to have a commitment at the state and/or federal levels to make real municipal wi-fi possible, but in an environment where significant public spending on anything else besides weaponry is anathema, I don't see that happening any time soon. It's completely insane that the richest country in the history of the planet can't come up with the will or the money to make such important and necessary investments for its own economic and cultural well-being, but I'm used to these things by now, I suppose.

As an aside, the article briefly touches on an aspect of the municipal wi-fi issue that has potential relevance for public libraries. “If we don’t have Internet, that means I’ve got to take the bus to the public library after dark, and around here, that’s not always real safe,” says a young North Philly resident who has come to rely on the low-cost network and a laptop provided for free by a local community organization. For many public libraries, free computer and Internet resources has become one of, if not the most, important ways to get patrons in the library. Sometimes I get the feeling that I don't work at a library but a big computer lab that just happens to have some books in it. My library and many others provide patrons with a free wi-fi hotspot, but having a city-wide network would be preferable for a variety of reasons. It's possible that the adoption of municpal wi-fi networks might reduce demand for library services, but I'd like to think that this isn't a zero-sum game and that patrons come to the library for a variety of reasons. Like the books, for example.

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