Muni Wireless’s Not So Free Lunch

A doff of the chapeau to Adam Thierer at Progress & Freedom Foundation for citing for the San Jose Mercury’s critical look at “free” municipal wireless in Silicon Valley. The article is only the latest in a series of skeptical reports in papers around the country about what the actual cost commitment these projects are going to require from cities. Here’s a portion of the report, available in full here (registration may be required).

While initially the project was lauded as a way to give the masses affordable Internet, key organizers have gently shifted the focus of the network from serving residents, for free, to giving businesses and city governments wireless access, for a price. “The idea that we’ve always had is that this is not just a WiFi network for people to get their e-mail,” said Seth Fearey, project leader for the Joint Venture Wireless Project. “Right from the start we said, `We know the operator has to make money; it’s very, very important there be a sustainable business model.”‘

As system costs rise, there’s a certain degree of retconning going on about these systemsââ?¬â??namely that the plan from the start was to serve city agencies first and the public second. Minneapolis wasted no time in getting word out about how its municipal wireless system aided first responders during last week’s bridge disaster. That’s all well and good, but that’s not how most of these projects were sold to taxpayers (the ComputerWorld article cited above mentions but ignores the significance of the fact that on the day of the disaster there were just 1000 people using the system. If it’s really outdoor wireless coverage for emergencies the city wants, it then begs the question if the city actually needs to create exclusive franchised municipal WiFi monopolies for the purpose. Why not open right of way to all would-be players, just like Anaheim did? As business models evolve, it’s simply a false dichotomy to assert it’s muni or it’s dead air.