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« MetroFi Scores Portland, Ore. | Main | Sacramento Airport Switches to Free »

April 14, 2006

John, You Ignorant Slut: Dvorak Is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

9920168I like John Dvorak very much: He is a completely entertaining fellow, and I've had a reasonable amount of correspondence with him in which he is charming, bizarre, and hilarious. He takes up causes. He makes people mad. He writes crazy, contrarian things. And today, he decided to be wrong, wrong, wrong! about metro-scale Wi-Fi.

Read his column first and let me dissect it for you.

"...there is no way that any cash-strapped city -- a category that appears to comprise all of them -- will not succumb to the financial benefit of pulling the plug on this free service, if it's ever implemented in the first place.": Except that outside of St. Cloud, Florida, virtually all free service is being provided by commercial firms who have committed to offering a little or extensive free service on their dime, not the city's.

"Even restaurants, coffee shops and airports that have free Wi-Fi do it only as an inducement to keep people in their facilities. And often those initiatives are undone by a slick salesperson who can show the business how to "monetize" their Wi-Fi.": Now, I agree with the first part, not the second. Wi-Fi was, at one point, a carrot to bring in customers, especially at off times. That's backfired in some places, where they have table squatters using laptops all day for one cup (or no cup) of coffee. (See my story on Victrola and their Wi-Fi free weekends from a year ago.)

But if everyone offers free Wi-Fi, how do you charge for it? You can't. Clusters of coffeeshops now all offer Wi-Fi for free rather than some offering it and some not, or some charging. In Seattle, an early Wi-Fi and coffeeshop culture mecca, I've seen many many cafes switch to free Wi-Fi because they couldn't get paying customers--and paying customers harass baristas about service being unavailable, too.

"In situations such as the various JetBlue terminals around the country where fliers can log on for free, the airports themselves, under pressure from the pay-as-you-go services, are telling the carrier to stop it.": Bzzzt, thanks for playing. That's only happening in Boston and not to JetBlue. And the FCC has to rule on whether it's very clear ruling a while ago that landlords can't restrict the use of unlicensed spectrum applies to Boston-Logan in a dispute with one airline over free Wi-Fi.

"Vendor after vendor will lobby city governments to take over the system and do a revenue split: 'Look, it's easier if we do it. You have to do no work, and we'll give you half the profit.'": That logic would work only if municipalities were, in general, paying for their Wi-Fi networks. They are not. In all of the major and most of the minor metro-scale networks now built, being built, or out for bid or RFI, vendors will bear 100 percent of the cost and will be required by contract to offer a minimum amount of free access. MetroFi, in its successful Portland, Ore., bid, has both free (with ads) and fee (no ads) service.

Dvorak ignores the cost conservation that is a huge part of metro-scale wireless, whether Wi-Fi, WiMax, 4.9 GHz proprietary, or what have you. There is a lot of money spent by cities that will be reduced or recovered when they can pay a much smaller amount to utilize a vendor-owned and -operated metro-scale network. For instance, Phila. will convert hundreds of leased digital lines with high recurring monthly fees to faster WiMax-like service with EarthLink. Phila. might save millions of dollars a year with little to no CapX (born by EarthLink) when the network goes live. And that's independent of whether residential city-wide Wi-Fi takes off.

Some cities, prior to Phila.'s 2004 signal that they'd put out a city-wide bid, had already built Wi-Fi-based public safety networks that were meant, in part, to replace aging analog equipment and celluar CDPD networks. That's where the money is: cost conservation equals just as much money in the bank as new revenue. It shrinks government, it reduces costs, and it produces more efficiency.

"And I can't imagine how much money will be thrown into a public-relations campaign against free Wi-Fi ("It causes cancer!") when someone figures out that it could easily result in universal free phone service using various voice-over-IP subsystems. Mum's the word on that. Shhhhh!": John, would you please nudge Dick Cheney in your undisclosed location and ask him for a newspaper? Voice over IP is a foundation of the interest by cities and citizens in many of these metro-scale networks.

"...there are few municipal officials who understand any of this technology, and none can withstand any orchestrated attack on the idea. It's politically risky when their support would have to come from a public that is so easily manipulated by corporate public-relations propaganda.": The fact is that the risk was in using taxpayer dollars (so called, even though not all city revenue comes from taxpayer dollars...). With that risk offset, and with private companies now funding and owning the networks they build, there's hardly cause for this prediction.

Most metro-scale Wi-Fi and wireless will be charged at a fee, MetroFi and Google's low-speed free offering in San Francisco notwithstanding. For eventual broadband levels of service everywhere and for most service in most places, people will be paying a monthly fee for access. Metro-scale free Wi-Fi won't go away; it will continue to be limited, useful, and advantageous, but not ubiquitous.

If John's contrarian, does this make me a counter-insurgent?

1 Comment


I'm not sure about your relationship with John Dvorak, but it has been my experience that he makes his money writing an opinion column where his stance is completely illogical and provably incorrect. He has done this with any number of other subject, like Microsoft (Windows), Apple (just about anything), Google (search), etc.

Most importantly, he's not even worth paying attention to. Whatever he writes, you can pretty much guarantee that the OPPOSITE is actually the case.

[Editor's note: My relationship with John is simply a form of crazy admiration, despite the chagrin reading his columns often causes.--gf]