The debate over whether cities should build Wi-Fi networks is hot enough to make the opinion page of a smaller metropolitan area's newspaper: St. Paul Pioneer Press ran a column arguing that it's not fair competition for city governments, which don't pay property or corporate income tax, to compete against commercial businesses. I don't have much sympathy for the Comcasts and Time Warners mentioned in this piece, but there are plenty of other boot strapped service providers that could end up competing with government-sponsored networks.
As this debate continues, I suspect some useful plans for how cities can help foster public Wi-Fi will emerge. Many onlookers cite examples where cities build Wi-Fi networks for public safety as good opportunities for the city to also offer that network to residents. Oklahoma City recently joined the ranks of cities building networks for public safety users.
Phil Belanger, vice president of marketing for BelAir offered another interesting example of how Wi-Fi can be made available to the public. In Encinitas, Calif., the downtown main street association decided to use Wi-Fi to promote the city as leading edge and also to offer broadband access, which isn't widely available in the area, to nearby residents. The association hired a service provider to build and maintain the network. Base stations are located on rooftops of member companies. The service provider aims for the monthly subscriptions from residents to serve as its regular bread and butter and figures revenue from the hotspot offering on the main street is gravy, Belanger said. While in this example the network sponsor is an association, it could just as easily be a city government that could negotiate for free or discounted access fees for hotspot users. In this case, a service provider has a business opportunity and the city can achieve some goals.
Belanger has been promoting collaborations between cities and commercial businesses, though he's not seeing much of it happen. Cities can contribute access to light poles or rooftops for network equipment to service providers who can help reach city goals of promoting growth or offering access to residents who might not be able to afford Internet access, Belanger said.