Free Wi-Fi and Forbidden Pants

For 10 more days, I’m a resident of Oakland County, Michigan, which has just pulled the plug on its experiment with free municipal wi-fi. The problem? Cost (duh). The county didn’t want to sink taxpayer money into the project, and the bandwidth provider, MichTel, seems to have miscalculated its likely profit margins: it’s losing $100K per month. This follows in the wake of uneven rollouts of free wireless Internet access in places like Philadelphia and San Francisco. I suspect that the data from Oakland’s project is typical, and points out the problem with 2-tiered service (free low-bandwidth, pay for higher speeds): over 14 months, Wireless Oakland had 21,000 free users – but just 300 paying ones. That’s not a healthy ratio.

Despite my love for nearly all things Internet, I don’t think that publicly-provided free wireless makes much sense. It’s not clear to me what benefit the public (as a collective entity) derives from being able to access the Net for free. (Is wi-fi really a public good?) It doesn’t do much for the digital divide – the cost burden there is the device (PC or PDA), not the access. I don’t see how this promotes civic engagement or interaction, and there is generally public access to the Internet in spaces like libraries and schools already. Tax dollars are scarce, and I’d rather see them devoted to education, health care, or infrastructure. (Michigan is wisely using its scarce public resources to tackle the pressing problem of baggy pants and visible backsides. I feel safer already!)

But, comments are open – tell me why I’m wrong, and why free Internet access in public spaces is a worthwhile civic endeavor.

7 Responses to “Free Wi-Fi and Forbidden Pants”

  1. I didn’t want to put this in the body of the post, but I for one do see some value in a public policy decision that enables the use of the phrase “plumber’s crack” in a newspaper article.

  2. I think you are generally right, except this: “the cost burden there is the device (PC or PDA), not the access.”

    You can get a PC for $300. At my house in WV, Comcast is $62.50 a month, and there is no DSL. My access cost for 6 months equals the cost of a cheap computer. That, plus Comcast sucks.

    That, plus wi-fi covers areas like parks, etc. where there may not be access already, and private access would be very expensive.

    So, free wi-fi has the benefit of giving an alternative to expensive monopolistic providers, which (maybe though unlikely) can drive up quality of service and drive down costs).

  3. I think you can make an argument that a true public-private partnership to make WiFi more widely available would be a worthy investment — but a lot of these plans were not in that category. They either require too much public money or are not economically viable for the private company (or, worst of all, both). If local government is going to use tax dollars for tech I’d probably rather see more computers in schools, and especially better training for teachers and students to use them well, than subsidized WiFi.

  4. Michael, I am totally with you on Comcast. I just moved off their service, and am very happy to learn that they’re not available in NYC. I’ll be much more careful investigating my ISP choices there.
    You’re right that I did not think through the device question quite precisely enough. I was thinking of how one could take advantage of free wi-fi in public spaces, and didn’t think through enough that it might be sufficiently widespread to cover households also. There is certainly a stronger case for free wi-fi in economically disadvantaged areas, though even there we might pick up on Bill’s point and devote that money to teacher training and buying textbooks.

    Bill, I couldn’t agree more that we need an alternative source of pressure – for both cost and rollout reasons – on the existing two-wire setup (cable / DSL). A wi-fi partnership probably makes sense here. I worry, though, that the devil is really in the details. Yochai Benkler has argued that open wireless mesh networks could address this problem, but I haven’t yet seen it work on the ground…

  5. Internet access, of course, does not have the qualities of a public good. However, this is not the only justification for government interference in markets. The salient problem is that telecommunications is a capital intensive network industry, which results in a high concentration of market power- hence the current market duopoly. Even this duopoly is only a function of technological history, from a time when telephone and cable service required physically distinct infrastructure. Particularly for broadband service, this is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.

    Drinking water and electricity are both rivalrous and excludable, but local governments often own and operate these systems. While telecommunications is not as vital as water, monopoly control over it is also dangerous- particularly because it’s “complicated” and thus the public is apparently willing to let providers get away with more. I’m not convinced public ownership of networks is the right answer either, particularly for (long run) efficiency, but at least some regulation, and IMHO stronger than what we have now, would be a good idea.

  6. “here is certainly a stronger case for free wi-fi in economically disadvantaged areas, though even there we might pick up on Bill’s point and devote that money to teacher training and buying textbooks.”

    Good points, though it depends, I would think. One of my students wrote an interesting paper this year on efforts to get high-speed access to most of rural West Virginia and the economic impacts of failing to do so. I think not having high speed access available is a crushing blow to economic development, which keeps property values suppressed, which means less money for computers and textbooks in classrooms.

    Thus, there is a good argument that immediate high speed access proliferation would both create a multiplier in educational spending, and would create more immediate economic growth.

    That said, I think it is a pretty complicated question.

  7. Imagine an age in which the newspaper is fully digital and is not released on paper. When government publishes public records online, but not on paper. When the future promised in the first web boom (everything will change) really comes true.

    In that world, free public WiFi (or its equivalent) will be critically important. Free access to information that’s necessary for public commerce and an informed citizenry cannot be restricted to those that can pay $30 or $60 or even $120 a month for Internet services in the home or on mobile devices. Library access is not enough.

    Perhaps it shouldn’t be totally free, much like electricity — even for the poor — is not free. But subsidized and/or managed as a public utility? Yes. Discounts for access by the poor for basic service? Yes.

    Water systems, telephone systems, power systems, sewage, garbage and so on are accepted as a baseline public service that all communities must have. Internet access — full access to the new participatory system of our communities — is just the next essential utility.