Your Government Network

Opinion: Just because you can get your communications infrastructure at a low price doesn't mean it's a good idea.

As you can see from the story about the new government-sponsored citywide Wi-Fi network in Rio Rancho, N.M., the move to treating data networks as a public utility seems to be growing. Already, cities around the United States are starting to explore the idea of at least limited sponsorship of wireless networks. In some places, state and local governments have interests in fiber; in others they have a role in cable networks.

/zimages/1/28571.gifTo read about Rio Ranchos Wi-Fi plans, click here.

In some cases, including in Rio Rancho, the government sponsorship is really just a way to encourage a private company to build infrastructure faster, and in a more coordinated manner than might happen otherwise. In others, such as whats proposed in San Francisco, the government would own the wireless infrastructure and let anyone use it for free.

Either way, these networks have the potential to lower your costs for Internet access. And in some cases, it might even be a good idea to take advantage of such public efforts. But there are also plenty of reasons why you probably should say, "Thanks, but no thanks."

First of all, its important to separate out the types of government-sponsored networks. Efforts such as the one in Rio Rancho are really no different from the municipal access granted phone and cable companies. They also pay a fee for the privilege and provide similar services. The government sponsorship is mostly in name rather than deed.

But there are already some networks that actually belong to the government, right from the start. The proposed network in San Francisco belongs in this category. If the government (the city government in this case) actually owns the network, then things change. If youre even a little paranoid, you have to assume that the government at whatever level could be interested in the information that flows in and out of your business. And you can assume that local law enforcement will have little trouble getting permission to listen in. After all, its the governments network, and they can do what they want with it.

But in reality, theres a bigger problem. After all, you can solve the eavesdropping problem by making sure everything is encrypted, which you should be doing anyway. Whats more important is that such networks place the city or state (or whatever level) in direct competition with private industry. Companies that currently provide broadband access will find that they have no way to stay in business when theyre competing against a free service.

This in turn will help ensure that business quality service gets more expensive, since the revenue base of the providers will diminish. Worse, you may find that the government-sponsored infrastructure is not up to the task of providing reliable high-speed broadband service thats good enough for business use. You could be stuck with a choice between a crummy public service and a non-existent private one.

The real answer, of course, is to let your provider know that your corporate business isnt going to stray to the public infrastructure, but rather will keep using what it has now. After all, its virtually certain that youll get higher quality service than you can get for free, and that while theres some cost involved, its almost certainly worth it.

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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...