Municipal Wi-Fi: Lets Keep It Local

Opinion: Yes, municipal Wi-Fi demands research, but more than that, it needs input from the local voters who will pay for it-not legislators or lobbyists at the state level.

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?