Tim Wu believes he has diagnosed the problems of public Wi-fi. Public wi-ife is a great idea, he says, but the problem is that municipalities have not recognized they need to spend real money on it.
It's hard to dislike the idea of free municipal wireless Internet
access. Imagine your town as an oversized Internet cafe, with invisible
packets floating everywhere as free as the air we breathe....
Not quite. The basic idea of offering Internet access as a public
service is sound. The problem is that cities haven't thought of the
Internet as a form of public infrastructure that"”like subway lines,
sewers, or roads"”must be paid for.
It could be, however, there are a few tiny differences between public wi-fi and public roads:
- Any wi-fi system you install today will be dated in three years and obsolete in five. In fact, given the long delay in public projects between design (and presumably technology selection) and deployment, the system may well be obsolete on the day it gets turned on. Would we have made the same public highway investment we did if roads went obsolete every five years?
- Roads don't tend to have private competitors. And when roads are constructed by private entities, say in a new housing development, you can absolutely bet that the municipality doesn't feel the need to invest in "public" roads to run beside them.
Wu admits that both cable and DSL have a much lower cost to serve urban customers, which is why private efforts for urban wi-fi tend to fail. Free municipal wi-fi will therefore be more expensive to build and operate than if you just provided direct public subsidy payments to poorer people to use existing private solutions. Further, a huge part of the investment will go towards giving away free access to people who already have internet service from a private supplier and are willing and able to pay for it.
Note that Wu never actually names a goal for municipal wi-fi or a
problem it is solving, just this beautiful vision of a city-wide
internet cafe (are we going to provide municipal coffee too?) This fascination with municipal wi-fi reminds me of nothing so much as a similar fascination with light rail. You can see it in his opening comment about the "oversized internet cafe." This is an aesthetic, not an economic, vision. Our light rail project here in Phoenix is the same way. It will haul passengers more expensively and at a far higher investment and with less flexibility than our bus and road system. With the investment we are putting into the system we could have instead bought cars for every rider and had money left over. It makes zero sense for the density and commuting patterns of this city, but still we are doing it, because there is a subset of people who love light rail as some sort of pleasing aesthetic vision. Name any goal either one is trying to solve (e.g. access to transportation or internet) with public investments in light rail or municipal wi-fi and those goals could be solved more cheaply some other way.
Postscript: A while back, I wrote about another danger of municipal wi-fi: That bureaucrats in charge of the system will try to protect their jobs by blocking new competitors:
[the municipal wi-fi authority] can use its government authority to block new entrants. ... Take another large government network business: The Post
Office. The USPS tried like hell to get the government to block Fedex,
and almost succeeded. The government continues to block competition to
the USPS for first class local mail. Heck, the USPS has tried at
various times to argue that it should have authority over email and the
Internet. The government blocks new cigarette manufacturers to protect
the settlement money it gets from the old-line tobacco companies and it
blocks usage of Love Field in Dallas to protect D/FW airport.
Bureaucracies never, ever let themselves die, and there is no way a
municipal broadband business will ever let itself be killed by a
competitor - that competitor will be blocked, even if that likely means
that local broadband consumers have to stick with higher costs and
You see something very similar with municipal water systems trying to get the government to limit the growth of bottled water. It happens all the time. Already, examples exist of municipalities trying to shut down wi-fi competition from private companies.
Boston's Logan International Airport is attempting to pull the plug on
Continental Airlines' free Wi-Fi node, which competes with the airport's
$7.95-a-day pay service.
In an escalating series of threatening letters sent over the last few weeks,
airport officials have pledged to "take all necessary steps to have the (Wi-Fi)
antenna removed" from Continental's frequent flyer lounge....