A number of cities across the country have been working on an ambitious plan to provide city-wide wireless Internet service — “WiFi” — but it’s been proving too ambitious:
It was hailed as Internet for the masses when Philadelphia officials announced plans in 2005 to erect the largest municipal Wi-Fi grid in the country, stretching wireless access over 135 square miles with the hope of bringing free or low-cost service to all residents, especially the poor.
Municipal officials in Chicago, Houston, San Francisco and 10 other major cities, as well as dozens of smaller towns, quickly said they would match Philadelphia’s plans.
But the excited momentum has sputtered to a standstill, tripped up by unrealistic ambitions and technological glitches. The conclusion that such ventures would not be profitable led to sudden withdrawals by service providers like EarthLink, the Internet company that had effectively cornered the market on the efforts by the larger cities.
There’ve turned out to be a few problems with the idea. The hardware needed to cover the desired area is generally more than expected, and even sorting out which parts of the city should be covered isn’t trivial. Parks? Bus stops? Random street corners? Does the coverage need to extend into buildings, to cover cafes and restaurants?
How does the municipal system interact with what’s already around? Philadelphia, for instance, was going to be covered by EarthLink, and Starbucks, for instance, uses T-Mobile for “hotspots” in its stores. If you’re paying $30/month to T-Mobile, will you then pay more to EarthLink? If so, how much more? Probably not another $30. Maybe there should be some sort of sharing agreement among the providers, but there are more than just those two, and it’s not easily set up.
And then, of course, there’s the issue of profit vs affordability. Shouldn’t the provider expect to make a profit? It is a business, after all. Do people have a right to expect free Internet? Or should the city make sure that if it’s not free, the cost is at least low?
We don’t get free telephone service, and some service plans can be pricey. So how do the carriers deal with the profitability of their telephone service? Mostly, they offer more services for more money, allowing for an economical service plan for people with limited means and limited needs, and giving the “all you can eat” service to people willing and able to pay more for it.
But that presupposes a customer base, and that’s been the profitability hitch with municipal WiFi. The number of people who need WiFi on the street is limited (though perhaps that will chance with the iPhone, and WiFi-enabled BlackBerry, Treo, and other devices), and many who want mobile Internet access already have it through other means. If all your customers buy your economy service, that really cuts into your profits. And if you don’t have many customers at all, on top of that, you simple can’t afford to be in that market.
The Times followed this article up with an editorial in which they say that EarthLink should honour its original deal:
The costs of building a network turned out to be higher than expected — at a time when prices for private Internet service were dropping. It also hurt, in Philadelphia’s case, that there was a major change at EarthLink, which went from being an advocate of municipal Wi-Fi to a company determined to cut costs....but that’s not realistic. EarthLink, and other companies, have to answer to their shareholders and other investors, and, while sacrificing profit for social good is a wonderful thing, driving oneself into bankruptcy doesn’t help the cause. If the cities need the service, the cities must take up the slack. Of course, that means the taxpayers are the ones footing the bill... or supporting their communities, depending upon how you look at it.
Broadband service is no longer a luxury. It has become a basic part of the infrastructure of education and democracy. EarthLink should fulfill the commitments it made. Even in these tough economic times, cities should keep pushing municipal Wi-Fi and looking for partners and plans that can make it a reality.
And there are some folks doing just that. In San Francisco, a non-profit called Internet Archive is funding free Internet service to people in public housing projects:
“We are pleased to be the first nonprofit organization to bring public housing online,” Mr. Kahle said. “We are excited to see much faster access to the Internet as a way to experiment with advanced applications, and are pleased that the underserved get first access to advanced technology.”