Muni Wi-Fi: Down from the Clouds, onto the Streets

Opinion: Citing a less than ideal track record of municipal services in Philadelphia, a former public advocate for Delaware, argues that cities must carefully evaluate municipal Wi-Fi before moving in that direction.

In response to our recent editorials on the battle for municipal Wi-Fi, reader Evan Wilner, a former public advocate for the state of Delaware, writes:

Its always stimulating to come upon theoretical discussions such as "Cities Should Control Their Wi-Fi Fates."

I had expected, in response to your call for reader comments, that something more concrete would arrive in your mailbox than the experiences of a small Pennsylvania college town.

May I suggest some of the real, practical concerns that suggest proceeding with caution before using such theoretical arguments to set up transmission towers in Americas great cities?

1. To understand the motivation and goals of Philadelphias proposed Wi-Fi system, get the real story straight from the horses mouth. See a transcript of Phillys IT director Dianah Neffs views offered in September 2004 under the auspices of government technology.

Among the many grand goals that Phillys Wi-Fi system is supposed to achieve, powering up Philadelphias municipal workers in the field is prominently listed. One must wonder, with financially strapped Philadelphia laying off workers, whether the "free" in a Philadelphia Wi-Fi system wouldnt apply to the city of Philadelphia while everyone else carries the load for city hall.

2. Lets be clear. There is no "magic bullet" when a large city offers any service, whether its telecoms or the police department or educational services. Public employees must be paid, required technology must be purchased, software licenses must be acquired.


Read what other readers think about municipal wireless.

3. Would it surprise you to know that the most essential telecoms service in the city of Philadelphia—the municipal emergency radio system used by the police department—is "outsourced" to Verizon and Motorola?

There have been persistent—if limited—operating problems in this $50 million plus system. Yet theres been no suggestion—not for a New York moment-—that the city of Philadelphia take over its operation. But wait, theres more.

Ms. Neff isnt planning to operate Phillys Wi-Fi services. Nope—theyll be outsourced, too.

4. Experience is worth something. Philadelphia has long experience with operating municipal utility services. The greatly troubled Philadelphia Gas Works, municipally owned and managed, is the largest city gas company in the nation. Its rates are certainly among the highest in the country, its customer default rate is many times that of other similar utilities.

But lets overlook those concerns and plunge ahead anyway. Why would anyone begin a municipally owned wireless telecommunications company in one of the nations largest cities?

The obvious justification for municipal wireless services, that Philadelphia lacks an array of competitive telecoms services, might be a compelling argument. But if one looks at the potential communications technologies, whether its the most advanced wireless cell phone offerings, wired broadband ranging from metropolitan fiber and Ethernet technologies to consumer cable and DSL offerings, Philadelphia has it all.

Since almost any customer within the city and county of Philadelphia can obtain virtually any telecoms service that they wish to have, what could be magical about a public Wi-Fi offering?

The argument of reaching unserved Philadelphia residents, lowering costs to increase access, doesnt hold water. Why would installing and maintaining a municipal wireless service across Philadelphia be significantly cheaper than the costs incurred by the incumbent cable and DSL broadband providers? Administrative and billing costs of such a startup couldnt be significantly less than the proportionate cost for administering broadband service at the existing cable and telephone companies.

Its much more likely—if one thinks about it for a moment—that the real barriers to computer access are the cost of the computer itself, the cost of maintaining a computer [and] the hurdle of educating new computer users. Its those problems, not a municipal wireless offering that might be $10 a month cheaper, thats the real barrier to universal computer access in Philadelphia and other great cities.

Evan Wilner tells us he has never represented the interests of any telecom. In fact, as public advocate of Delaware from 1979-1991, he served as the publics representative in regulatory matters against Verizon for a dozen years.


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