Has Wi-Fi joined health care and education on the list of things that many people consider rights rather than privileges?
San Jose, Calif., became the latest American city to launch an ambitious project aimed at providing what’s known as “muni Wi-Fi” — municipal wireless Internet access. The first part of the plan involves replacing the city’s existing but outdated network to improve public infrastructure like the wireless parking meter system. The second step is offering mobile Internet users the city’s excess capacity free of charge, beginning with the busy downtown district.
Unlike other cities that have attempted muni Wi-Fi projects, San Jose has no designs on becoming a full-fledged wireless service provider. Perhaps this focused approach will help San Jose find the success that has eluded many earlier efforts.
How projects become problematic
The past several years have seen a number of muni Wi-Fi initiatives run into a similar set of problems, such as:
- Operational difficulties with networks
- In-house management vs. outsourcing
- Overly optimistic revenue projections and unrealistic business models
When a local government partners with a wireless provider, its competitors often object. These arrangements raise questions about franchise monopolies that have attracted the attention of everyone from state officials to the Federal Trade Commission.
Resistance from local internet service providers greatly complicated a muni Wi-Fi plan in Philadelphia.
Should government be in the business of business?
Other concerns about muni Wi-Fi revolve around the more basic question of whether government should compete with the private sector.
In 2011, North Carolina’s state legislature passed a bill that requires voter approval before a city can enter into a wireless venture staked by public funds. The bill’s supporters believed that government — with the backing of the taxpayers’ deep pockets — enjoyed an unfair advantage.
Some proponents of public Wi-Fi argue that the Internet age has made online access more of a public utility than a private commodity. In that regard, the muni Wi-Fi issue echoes the current debate over federal health-care reform: redefining what we see as privileges vs. what we see as rights.
A discussion that’s far from over
Will local governments continue to pursue a bigger role in providing wireless Internet access? A lot depends on the interaction of government agencies and providers like CLEAR, the developer of the first 4G network in the United States, on questions of competition and public policy.
One thing remains obvious. Just like health-care reform, the public discussion of muni Wi-Fi will see a lot more give and take as events continue to unfold.