The Myth of Municipal Wireless

Opinion: Technology is often implemented for all the wrong reasons.

The topic of municipal wireless has become a real hot button. Many communities are implementing municipal wireless, but theyre doing so for the wrong reasons. And, worse, theres a dirty little secret about muni wireless (more on that later).

Not all municipal wireless efforts are political pork, nor are they failures. The city of Providence, R.I., for example, has done everything right. The city started out with a goal that was clearly defined, achievable, limited in scope, and that improved city services while reducing costs. Municipal wireless was implemented to make the city work more efficiently, and it does.

But a more typical approach by cities is to promise free wireless access to the masses. The reasons given are many, ranging from bridging the digital divide to promoting business in certain areas of a city. Disadvantaged kids will finally be able to do their school research online! Poor families can apply for jobs, get their GEDs or take college courses!


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Theres also the picture painted of decaying city centers magically revitalized when people can use their laptops while enjoying the amenities of downtown. No doubt you can already imagine the gentle crunch of the hypodermic needles beneath your feet as you make your way to a bench so you can sit down and compute. Thats assuming you can find a bench not already occupied with a sleeping person, or not already covered by, well, something unmentionable.

The reason youre looking for a bench outside is because of that dirty little secret I mentioned earlier: Most of the time, municipal wireless doesnt work inside buildings. Or, if it does, its not free. Want to check your e-mail or download tunes for your iPhone while you sip your days calorie load in that mint chocolate mocha Frappuccino? Better you should use the coffee shops hot spot, where youll at least get a comfortable chair and a reliable connection.

Cynically speaking, many mayors push municipal Wi-Fi so they can wow the voters. All it takes are a few wireless access points in a disadvantaged section of town, and the politicians have a reason for their affluent and socially aware voters to vote for them. The fact that those wireless networks dont penetrate low-income housing doesnt matter because the people who live there cant afford computers anyway.

There are exceptions. Riverside, Calif., for example, figured out that you cant solve the problem of the digital divide without offering a complete solution. So the city is providing a wireless network that works inside buildings, as well as computers and training to those who cant afford them.

Unfortunately, many of these municipal projects end up costing taxpayers but providing few services. Remember the old saying about there being no such thing as a free lunch? It also applies to wireless.


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Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...