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.