“Were from the government and were here to help you” is a very old and sad joke, but theres a lot of truth to it. Municipal governments, especially in big cities, have a tragic history of policies with unintended consequences for their constituents and others.
The movement to have local governments provide wireless Internet access is a classic case of do-gooders ignoring the implications of a policy. Since I write about security, that is the issue Ill focus on. Certainly the advocates of municipal Wi-Fi havent focused on it.
This issue attained some currency when Orlando recently announced that it would shut down a free public Wi-Fi network because of disinterest.
The Orlando project was very different from most of the others Ive looked at. It was free access intended to stimulate business in a specific area by bringing Internet users to it.
It was, nevertheless, a failure, and does teach some lessons. It seems to me to underscore the argument that Internet access is widely available already.
The largest example of the more common idea is the plan by the city of Philadelphia to provide wireless Internet access for the entire 135 square miles of the city. The actual plan (heres a link to the business plan for the project, in PDF format) calls for a nonprofit corporation to build out the infrastructure and lease it out at “low wholesale” prices to third parties to provide the end-user Internet service on it. The plan magically produces funds for the wireless build-out through “foundation grants, bank loans, and other non-city sources.” In other words, its supposed to be free.
The nonprofit also will provide free access in parks and public squares of the type Orlando just abandoned.
The third-party ISPs will have to provide discounted rates for “…low-income and disadvantaged residents as well as minority, women, and disable-owned, and other small businesses.” The nonprofit also funds free or discounted computers for the same persons and PR for the whole endeavor.
There are also a lot of numbers asserting, without any backing, that the nonprofit will break even in four years and generate gobs of cash flow for funding programs to assault the “digital divide,” a cause at the heart of the network.
I have many problems with this, even if I were to believe everything asserted about the proposed network, which I hope you can tell by now I dont.
First, at a time when Philadelphia is closing libraries, shutting down half the city pools, handing over control of their underfunded schools to the state, and letting its ancient public transportation infrastructure crumble, this doesnt seem like a good allocation of resources.
Oh, I forgot, this isnt going to cost the city anything—well, even if thats true, things like grant money arent infinite.
I would rather see it in the schools. My family is from Philadelphia, I lived there a long time and I have many friends and relatives there, so I care for the city.
Heres the basic technical problem: Theres a lot more to being an ISP than providing a pipe, and security is the perfect example of how its expensive to be a good ISP.
The nature of the service will put tremendous pressure on providers to skimp on things like security that users cant see. Security for an ISP requires careful and persistent attention to administrative details, like monitoring log files, and even most commercial ISPs dont do this.
Security in the Plan
The business plan makes very few references to the security of the network, and only two are worth repeating.
The short section on security (page 28) it lists various generic issues of securing wireless networks, such as the ability to provide encryption and authentication, without actually saying that these capabilities will be deployed.
It then notes that “…the more secure the network is, the more complicated the provisioning process can become. Open access in parks and public spaces should limit the provisioning requirement to confirmation of an acceptable use policy and disclaimer.”
This sounds like a plan for no security at all to me. You can rest assured that these public access points will become the perfect place from which to conduct attacks, send spam and similar unsavory activities.
Another point in the plan (page 47) notes other municipal wireless plans and their “Best Practices.”
Exactly one of them, Benton County, Washington, is noted for security. Why?
Benton County turns out to be interesting because its a private endeavor by Maverick Wireless Corporation.
Theres no real government involvement, although Maverick did build its network using underutilized fiber networks belonging to rural public utility districts. I dont see why Philadelphia considers Maverick a model for security, but I suspect that its easier to provide good security when your customers are paying market rates.
Do you like to complain about your Internet service provider? Most people do, but imagine being able to call your city councilmember to complain about the service.
You know this sort of thing is going to happen in a municipal Wi-Fi network, especially if the discounted service isnt everything the full-price services are.
If there really is a problem with Internet access, then there is a better way to deal with it than to put the government in the business of building Internet service: vouchers.
In Philadelphia, broadband in the form of cable or DSL is available everywhere. If its too expensive for poor people, subsidize them.
Personally I think this, too, is a luxury and the money is better spent on things like books and schools and subways, but its a much more direct response to the problem than to build a whole network.
Also, insecure ISPs are the bane of the Internet, imposing huge costs on other users as well as their own.
Its hard to believe that an ISP operating at low cost will be able to provide support needed by what will have to be a technically unsophisticated user base.
Even if you believe everything they say about the network, its still a train wreck in the making.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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