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Municipal Wi-Fi access schemes unjust - report

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Government run, city-wide hotspots will unfairly tax residents for a service that only a handful will use, according to Steven Titch, co-author of a recent report denouncing the ambitions of Philadelphia, Las Vegas, New York, and others to become Wi-Fi Meccas.

"Whose internet does muni[cipal] wireless subsidize?" Titch asked rhetorically during a press conference commemorating the report's release. "The high-end professional's," he insisted.

Traveling business people and their college-aged children will enjoy the benefits of free or heavily-discounted service, while the majority of citizens, who are not equipped to take advantage of it, will be stuck paying the bills, he warned.

The negative, and in places alarmist, report comes from the New Millennium Research Council (NMRC), a telecoms industry research outfit and offshoot of Washington lobbying outfit Issue Dynamics Inc (IDI). It cites numerous conceptual flaws that the group, or its clients in the telecomms industry, believe have received too little attention.

Among these is the fact that such schemes might leave local governments in the twin roles of regulator and competitor, which the industry sees as patently unfair and ripe for abuse.

Another is the tendency of governments to underestimate the costs involved. For example, Philadelphia reckons its rollout cost, perhaps optimistically, at $60,000 per square mile, or a mere $10m to cover the city's 135 square miles.

The NMRC notes that these estimates typically fail to take maintenance and administrative costs into account. And there may be something to that. "Once the Wi-Fi units have been installed, they create a self-organizing and self-healing wireless mesh," the City of Philadelphia cheerfully explains, in chirpy anticipation of a system that's cheap and easy to maintain.

Another objection is that government controlled access might mean government content filtering. "I think we need to determine whether it is in the best interests of a free society to allow governments to control data transmission and distribution," Barry Aarons, from the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI), observed during the press conference.

In all, the report worries much about problems that may never materialize. It's more a catalogue of worst-case scenarios than disinterested analysis. For example, while it cites a few disasters in municipal broadband schemes, it should be noted that these involved laying a lot of fiber optic cable. While there may be a tendency for bureaucrats and politicians to understate the full costs of any project, it's still worth noting that Wi-Fi is less expensive to deploy.

As for whether these schemes represent an equitable use of public funds, fairness is in the eye of the beholder. If a city-wide hotspot is something that most residents want and are willing to pay for, then it can't possibly be called unfair. How it's perceived will vary city to city, but it's alarmist to say that it's automatically inequitable.

The filtering issue is perhaps more tangible, since Congress has passed legislation requiring libraries to filter Internet access in order to qualify for federal funds. This illustrates the everlasting American urge to regulate the freedoms and pleasures of others, and a willingness to use child-protective hype to accomplish it. It is a real and persistent problem. But the analogy is unclear: cities that lean towards providing a sanitized, child-friendly internet will be taking on quite a bit of hassle from myriad sources, such as civil liberties crusaders, outraged users, and snippy journos. It's hard to imagine a city doing this to itself. More likely, Congressional prudes and Jesus bullies will step in at some point and demand it, applying the usual tactic of tax-revenue extortion.

The NMRC appeal to pity, that municipal Wi-Fi is unfair to the telecoms industry, is the weakest argument of all. If telcos don't want governments competing with them, they are at liberty to invest their capital and build out their own systems. But, by and large, they haven't so far, and cities are taking up the slack in response to their conspicuous lack of ambition. In a free market, there's always a price to be paid for dithering. At this point, it's a bit late to start whining about it. ®

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