Wireless Access: The Next Great Municipal Crisis

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-06-23 Print this article Print

Opinion: Municipal Wi-Fi plans like Philadelphia's are security disasters in the making.

"Were from the government and were here to help you" is a very old and sad joke, but theres a lot of truth to it. Municipal governments, especially in big cities, have a tragic history of policies with unintended consequences for their constituents and others. The movement to have local governments provide wireless Internet access is a classic case of do-gooders ignoring the implications of a policy. Since I write about security, that is the issue Ill focus on. Certainly the advocates of municipal Wi-Fi havent focused on it.

This issue attained some currency when Orlando recently announced that it would shut down a free public Wi-Fi network because of disinterest.
The Orlando project was very different from most of the others Ive looked at. It was free access intended to stimulate business in a specific area by bringing Internet users to it.
It was, nevertheless, a failure, and does teach some lessons. It seems to me to underscore the argument that Internet access is widely available already.

The largest example of the more common idea is the plan by the city of Philadelphia to provide wireless Internet access for the entire 135 square miles of the city. The actual plan (heres a link to the business plan for the project, in PDF format) calls for a nonprofit corporation to build out the infrastructure and lease it out at "low wholesale" prices to third parties to provide the end-user Internet service on it. The plan magically produces funds for the wireless build-out through "foundation grants, bank loans, and other non-city sources." In other words, its supposed to be free.

The nonprofit also will provide free access in parks and public squares of the type Orlando just abandoned. The third-party ISPs will have to provide discounted rates for "...low-income and disadvantaged residents as well as minority, women, and disable-owned, and other small businesses." The nonprofit also funds free or discounted computers for the same persons and PR for the whole endeavor.

There are also a lot of numbers asserting, without any backing, that the nonprofit will break even in four years and generate gobs of cash flow for funding programs to assault the "digital divide," a cause at the heart of the network.

I have many problems with this, even if I were to believe everything asserted about the proposed network, which I hope you can tell by now I dont. First, at a time when Philadelphia is closing libraries, shutting down half the city pools, handing over control of their underfunded schools to the state, and letting its ancient public transportation infrastructure crumble, this doesnt seem like a good allocation of resources.

Oh, I forgot, this isnt going to cost the city anything—well, even if thats true, things like grant money arent infinite. I would rather see it in the schools. My family is from Philadelphia, I lived there a long time and I have many friends and relatives there, so I care for the city.

Heres the basic technical problem: Theres a lot more to being an ISP than providing a pipe, and security is the perfect example of how its expensive to be a good ISP. The nature of the service will put tremendous pressure on providers to skimp on things like security that users cant see. Security for an ISP requires careful and persistent attention to administrative details, like monitoring log files, and even most commercial ISPs dont do this.

Next Page: Security in the plan.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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