Municipal Wi-Fi: Lets Keep It Local

By Carol Ellison  |  Posted 2005-02-03

Municipal Wi-Fi: Lets Keep It Local

Advocates of Big Broadband took their case against municipal Wi-Fi public on Thursday with a new report from the New Millennium Research Council.

Six researchers and spokespeople from outside research organizations, all of whom contributed to the 40-page report, outlined why they think municipal Wi-Fi is a sorry idea in an hour-long conference call with journalists.

Their conclusion: "The rollout of municipally held Wi-Fi networks will likely have a detrimental effect on city budgets and on competition."

The session with journalists following that conclusion was long on rhetoric and short on data, and it was characterized by too many political commonplaces—that muni wireless is anti-competitive, that it will result in high costs to taxpayers, etc.—and just enough absurdities not to be convincing.

The best proof that Steve Titch, senior fellow for IT and telecom at the Heartland Institute, could offer for why we dont need muni Wi-Fi was JiWire. Thats right, folks, the national hot-spot directory that will show you where to go in your town for high-speed Internet access when you cant get it at home or in the office.

Evidently, the point behind that "analysis" was that Wi-Fi is indeed everywhere, and you dont need your municipality delivering it to your home or business if you can get it at Starbucks.

Im sure all of you business owners out there look forward to packing up your employees with their laptops, paper clips and cell phones each day and staking out tables at Panera Bread to conduct business over the Web.

Panera Bread may not care for the loitering but, hey, if you got booted, you could always take the office out to the car and, if the signal were strong enough, do business from the front seat. Your only worry then would be having your corporate credit account victimized by a phishing scam such as "Evil Twin." But, hey, cheer up, pal—your loss would be the free markets gain.

In fairness to the NMRC (New Millennium Research Council), other arguments presented at the session were not quite so naive. But while the session promised to fill the gap on the dearth of in-depth analysis on the subject, it and the report that accompanied it offered many more sweeping statements about failed projects than information about why they failed.

When I asked for examples of failed projects, participants were initially hard-pressed to come up with them. They got together to offer a short list that included Marietta, Georgia; Tryon, Georgia; Ashland, Oregon; Lebanon, Ohio; and a public utility district in the state of Washington whose name no one seemed to remember (Tacoma, someone suggested).

Next Page: A case of selective examples?

Selective Examples

?"> But beyond the list, we werent given any information about the failures. And on looking more deeply into the NMRCs report online, I learned that most of those were municipal broadband projects and that the NMRC, like the rest of us, had little in the way of detail on Wi-Fi.

Thats not to say that municipal projects dont have their problems. Im reminded of stadium-building frenzy in my hometown of Cincinnati, where the city funded separate stadiums for its football and baseball teams with cost overruns that will keep taxpayers digging into their pockets for years to come.

But Im also reminded of stadium projects (Baltimore and Indianapolis come to mind) where the results were not abysmal. So, you do have to wonder if the NMRCs report is really serious analysis, or just a case of selective examples that support a conclusion someone might have wanted to put forth.

Who might that someone be? NMRC is a subsidiary of Issue Dynamics Inc. (IDI), which the Center for Media and Democracy describes as "a Washington-based consulting firm that organizes PR campaigns on behalf of clients."

"A number of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] have been partnered with corporations by IDI to advocate in support of causes that the companies support," the Center for Media and Democracy goes on. "IDI characterizes these arrangements as win-win solutions that bring together broad coalitions in support of the shared agendas of each of the organizations.

"However, its work has angered some consumer activists, who say IDI often does not disclose whom it is working for. They argue that IDIs work amounts to astroturf PR."

The NMRC made a point to say that none of the researchers who participated received any money from NMRC. But in case youre wondering whos paying the bills at IDI, take a look at its client list. If you dont want to read the whole huge thing, let me summarize those of interest in this issue: Ameritech, Bell South, Comcast, Pacific Bell, Qwest, SBC Communications, Sprint, U.S. West, Verizon and Verizon Wireless.

These companies favor state legislation prohibiting municipal broadband (including Wi-Fi) projects or giving incumbent carriers veto power over them, such as Pennsylvania did.

The NMRC did not call for similar legislation, although the various organizations whose experts participated in the report have done so.

Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, urged state legislators in an article that appeared on the institutes Web site last month to get behind model legislation being circulated by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council).

That model served as the underpinnings of the Pennsylvania law and appears to be guiding similar proposals that have been introduced before the Illinois and Ohio state legislatures.

Bast should take a cue from his own writing. He tells us at the top of his article: "On Nov. 2, 2004, voters in Illinois Tri-Cities (Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles) voted down referenda to approve a municipal broadband plan. It was the second time in as many years voters rejected the proposal."

Note, it was the voters in Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles who voted it down. And theyre the ones to do it, not a bunch of legislators sitting in the state Capitol. The NMRC does have a number of good points to make about the efficiencies that private enterprise can achieve. There is a good argument that the telcos—with a depth of capital far greater than in a municipalitys coffers—are in a better position to build, maintain and upgrade local Internet access.

But beyond the nitty-gritty of technology, if were really talking the American tradition (which those at the NMRC session were wont to do), shouldnt it be the voters in the municipality—the people who will have to pay for these things—to decide? Not ALEC, the Heartland Institute, the New Millennium Research Council, its parent IDI, or any of the many telcos on IDIs substantial client list pushing their own agendas through state legislatures.

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