Politicians have managed to stifle any sort of argument on the pros and cons of having government involved in providing free municipal-sponsored wireless Internet access with a simple and straightforward approach: Dont look a gift horse in the mouth.
But the argument on this issue isnt one-sided and it is foolish to think it will remain so. The back and forth that will go on over this issue provides a preview of what is expected to take place as Congress approaches a rewrite of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
At Spot-on.com, the political Web site I run, weve started to explore parts of this conversation. Regular readers—here and there—know that I think free municipal Wi-Fi is a good idea.
I think its a great economic development tool. Most importantly, I think it will get lots of folks who dont understand the power of a networked economy and society to change their thinking. But I dont think its a substitute for full-time Internet access. And I do think you should pay for that.
My colleague at Spot-on.com, Joshua Trevino, thinks differently. So I thought Id share with you some of what hes written.
Josh also works for a San Francisco think tank, Pacific Research Institute, that has opposed the idea of free Wi-Fi here in San Francisco, but his position on this issue shouldnt be taken to represent PRIs entire point of view.
Trevino is warning that government creation of single municipally-provided Wi-Fi service is, well, a monopoly. And monopolies are bad for consumers. Heres an excerpt:
Yes, you read that right—he has asserted wireless internet as a fundamental right. This may strike you as absurd, and well it should. But whatever the average San Franciscans attitude toward actual fundamental rights, dont think for a moment that this stand on principle, or lack thereof, extends to resisting the siren call of Free Stuff from the Government.
That free stuff is, of course, never free. But people need reminding. So, lets talk about it. Lets talk about just whats wrong with municipal Wi-Fi—or, as I prefer to call it, government-controlled Internet.
The consequences of the city government granting special privileges to one ISP (which will presumably supply citywide Wi-Fi) will be classic examples of what happens when the government decides to play favorites in the erstwhile private sector: Competitors will find it difficult to compete against the full backing of the local government.
Eventually they will withdraw from the market altogether—this is especially true of smaller ISPs with thin profit margins. The net result for the San Francisco consumer will be less choice.
Meanwhile, the de facto monopolist will feel progressively less market pressure to innovate and improve its services. Since Wi-Fi technology is hardly static, its not difficult to imagine San Francisco being locked into an obsolete wireless standard as a result of this experiment in a decade or so. (See Frances Minitel debacle for an instructive parallel.)
Lets also discuss how this is going to be paid for. Its possible that the city will directly fund the implementation of city Wi-Fi, in which case the San Franciscan taxpayer will foot the bill.
More likely, the recipient of the citywide Wi-Fi monopoly will self-fund the project through advertising revenues.
In which case, picture this: a San Francisco in which your only real ISP choice is the citywide Wi-Fi—and every Web page you view has a little NetZero/Yahoo/Google ad popup on it.
Finally, history tells us that when government assumes a responsibility for content, it inevitably ends up attempting to make it conform to some manner of standards.
This may seem harmless and even laudatory to many who would be happy to see, say, web pornography disappear. But wait till it happens to online political content. Or religious content. Or “libelous” and “defamatory” content.
Why even open that door?
If you have absolute trust in the common sense, competence, and good intentions of the city government in perpetuity—and its ability to thwart the normal mechanisms of the market—then you should support municipal Wi-Fi.
For the rest of us, we ought to think twice about killing the conditions that have already made San Francisco one of the most wired cities in America.
Theres an easy response to Trevinos position: Free Wi-Fi is a convenience, nothing more. Its the service youd use to look up directions from a hand-held, a way to provide a bridge between heavily wired access points, say your home and your office. For that reason, it will never be a true monopoly.
As with many things political, the points Trevino raises may become real issues in the debate at the national level.
The ability for cities and towns to offer free local Internet access to their residents or the ability for customers to share their access as they see fit is becoming the pressing consumer issue during the telecom debate, but it runs directly counter to the free-market ethos of the tech world.
The time to listen and respond to critics like Josh Trevino and the arguments they are making—arguments sure to be taken up in Congress and elsewhere—is now.
eWEEK.com technology and politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. She is editor and founder of Spot-on.com. She can be reached at [email protected]