Out of Control Policy Blog

The Dogma of Municipal WiFi

When free-market libertarians and big-government liberals gang up on you, you might as well give it up.

If you think that the $353 million dollar public tax giveaway for the proposed Twins stadium is a sweet deal for billionaire Carl Pohlad–the richest owner in major league baseball–and a raw deal for the public, then you will cringe at what is poised to be an even more blatant act of corporate welfare: Minneapolis' plan to outsource a citywide wireless (Wi-Fi) broadband network project that will provide internet access everywhere in the city.

This is not from an article in Reason. Quite the contrary, it's the lead that kicks off a 2,000-word screed that serves as the cover story, "The Selling out of Public WiFi," in the current issue of Pulse the Twin Cities, a left-leaning alternative weekly in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Fresh from having to defend the Minneapolis WiFi plan against a St. Paul Pioneer Press editorial that questioned why the city government should be meddling in a functional market, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback now must fend off attacks from the Left.

Ryback countered Pioneer Press criticism by stating the Minneapolis plan is a public-private partnership. No taxpayer money will fund it. The $25 million project will be managed by either EarthLink or U.S. Internet, the two finalists.

That's precisely the problem, writes Aaron Neumann in Pulse, who'd rather see the City of Minneapolis shoulder the whole project itself, even though he freely admits in the article that, under the current plan, the city won't have to battle bigger, stronger commercial Internet players, and, besides, has nowhere near $25 million lying around to fund such a venture.

But when you're a muni loonie, practicalities don't matter. We've already seen big-government liberals gang up on the San Francisco municipal wireless plan, which also seeks to outsource construction, management and ownership. It's a growing trend. Municipal governments have considered the independent studies of the cost of ownership, like JupiterResearch's finding that WiFi costs $150,000 per square mile over five years, the security liabilities inherent in wireless data networks and the competitive picture, and have wisely punted.

That's what appalls the Left the most: they are losing another opportunity to increase the size and intrusiveness of government. For all they talk about bridging the digital divide, increasing broadband penetration and making cities "hip," for the true believers such as Neumann, if the government isn't doing broadband, they'd rather not see it done at all.

As with all forms of dogma, irony is lost. The reasons Neumann lists to fight the project – that it amounts to corporate welfare, that its finances won't be transparent, that there will be no accountability for quality service, aren't reasons to increase government involvement. They are reasons why governments should not be involved at all. I don't think these "public-private" muni wireless franchises are a great idea, either, but they are far better than creating another city bureaucracy. In the end, I hope that most cities realize these broadband networks will expand without (or despite) cozy city arrangements.

I've spent time with state and local legislators, and even officials from muni wireless consultants such as Civitium. While we disagree on the fundamental principles behind municipal wireless and broadband, there is no question that their motives are driven by a desire to expand cheap, reliable Internet access. Still, as cities study the empirical costs of these ventures, most are wisely backing away from direct government ownership.

This has forced the muni loonies to raise the volume and, in the process, reveal their real agenda – and it has nothing to do with broadband. At heart, like much of the environmental movement, the "nutrition" police, and the anti-Wal-Mart "low-prices-hurt-the-poor" crowd, muni broadband activists are driven by an emotional, dogmatic antipathy for business. But such radical rhetoric doesn't play well in City Hall. Dare we mention that Philadelphia, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., which along with Minneapolis, have outsourced "municipal" wireless, all have Democratic administrations. You can't blame pro-business conservatives and libertarians for this one.


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