Free wireless without a big municipal plan

More evidence that cheap broadband can exist without a municipal program. Austin, Tex., ranks third on Intel’s list of America’s Most Unwired Cities (behind San Francisco and Seattle). Yet this has happened without a municipal program, or the usual rheotric about market failure and broadband duopoly. What’s more, in Austin, WiFi is free. Much of the success stems from the efforts of the Austin Wireless City Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading the availability of free wireless throughout the Austin area. They do it the way grassroots groups used to, through door-to-door visits and face-to-face persuasion. Volunteers, called “walkers,” visit coffee shops, restaurants and other businesses where there is a solid level of traffic. Their pitch is that local businesses benefit from offering free WiFi. Richard MacKinnon, president of the Austin Wireless City Project, told the Austin Business Journal that Wi-Fi users pumped an additional $500,000 into businesses participating in the Austin Wireless project last year. Austin business patrons are demanding free WiFi, he says. Austin City Wireless will assist any business or organization seeking to create a hotspot. It will designate a “network caretaker” to install and maintain a hotspot, and even provide necessary hardware from a pool of donated computers and equipment. Participants are not limited to the stereotypical upscale bookstore or coffee house; its web site lists 93 hot spots, which include several branches of the Austin Public Library, two movie theaters, a car wash and a collision repair shop. While Philadelphia, Anaheim and other cities are turning to the private sector for wireless, they still plan institute larger municipal agencies to promote services. These agencies rarely match the enthusiasm and commitment of a community non-profit. In Austin, a few committed individuals who chose to leverage market mechanisms have accomplished far more already. Wireless initiatives elsewhere are targeting $20 a month for basic service and won’t be online until next year. I still have problems in seeing how that is better than free service across a broad swath of locations today, exactly what has happened in Austin.