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February 1, 2005

Beat the TechBeat on Muni Wireless

BusinessWeek's Tech Beat blog says muni bad, muni fall down and go boom: The fine folks at BusinessWeek seem to have fallen for tropes, sock puppets, and strawmen. In this post, they say that Philly probably shouldn't get into the business of offering municipal wireless Internet access because other municipalities have failed and shouldn't cities be putting their money elsewhere?

The report they cite, not yet out, is from the New Millennium Research Council which is a sock puppet for the incumbent telecommunications interests. The Council, with three listed board members, is related to several other institutions that serve as ostensibly disinterested mouthpieces for industries that want less regulation and are afraid to speak directly to that point. Sascha Meinrath unearthed the connections at three institutes a few weeks ago. In fact, I believe I received an executive summary of this report co-branded with The Heartland Institute a few weeks ago aimed at op-ed pages.

BusinessWeek believes the anti-municipal hype, which is that Philly is going to round up garbagemen and street cleaners and put them to work building out and maintaining the network. I exaggerate. But it's been clear for months that Philly is talking about finding a commercial, private partner which will build and run the network for the city on a contract basis, just as many cities don't empty the garbage themselves but hire firms (which can be fired) to do so.

In the report I believe BusinessWeek refers to, several strawmen are set up, including the fact that two municipal broadband projects--one in Tacoma and one in Ashland--have failed to meet goals and have gone overbudget. But the "report" disregards, conveniently, that these two projects were in small, struggling cities trying to reinvent themselves as more than just lumber-smell central (Tacoma) and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Ashland). They were ahead of the curve, deploying fiber optic connections without necessarily having clear goals. They wanted to attract more business. Ashland's situation is particularly complicated.

The author conveniently ignores Palo Alto, an early fiber-optic deployer, and I have no idea whether that project was vastly successful or a huge failure. Based on what I know about the growth of Internet businesses around Palo Alto that have remained post dotcom bubble, it seems that fiber might actually attract business.

Finally, we're talking about wireless here: no need to tear up the streets again and again. No need to wonder whether fiber can be brought to the home or into businesses on a cost-effective basis. Broadband wireless is already a well-known commodity that can be delivered on a reliable basis with current technology. And it can reach plenty of areas that DSL and cable don't serve at a fraction of the raw infrastructure cost.

The reason WiMax is getting so much attention is not that WiMax makes this possible, but, rather, that WiMax turns a variety of disparate non-interoperable ideas into a coherent set of possibilities that will lower costs through standardization. WiMax doesn't enable broadband wireless; it enables cheaper, more standard, more robust flavors of broadband wireless.

The Tech Beat writer also seems to misunderstand that these aren't hotspots: But some of these hot spots might be never used (My elderly neighbors are unlikely to hook up to the Web any time soon). And in places like parks and public libraries where lots of people might want to use Wi-Fi, chances are that private companies like Wayport have already installed their access points. So, what's the point?

Philly is building broadband to the home and to work as its central purpose. They may use Wi-Fi, but it's Wi-Fi as a delivery mechanism not as a cloud of access. Philly isn't building a city-wide hotspot network; they're building a municipal dial tone that guarantees each resident the possibility of high-speed Internet access in the same way that telcos have been regulated to provide the opportunity (and subsidized funding) for every individual to have a telephone dial tone.

(On an unrelated topic, the writer notes, Here in Portland, Ore., which was severely impacted by the recession, I see homeless people standing at every freeway exit asking for money every day. Shouldn't the cities help people in need first? The answer is yes. We have those folks in Seattle, too, where we have a reasonably large homeless problem. The folks at freeway exits may be homeless, but they're actually hustlers: I see them in Seattle changing shifts, handing signs off, etc. It's a scam. The real homeless problem is much more hidden than freeway exits, and it's much more real.)

The writer also notes, So, that might mean that when a city's pockets get lean -- and that's something that happens every few years -- it could very well cut the Wi-Fi service off. And without proper maintenance, the infrastructure could quickly fall apart. It depends how the contract is written: Philly has a plan to be cash-flow positive within a few years and to establish the service on a contract basis. If the city goes bankrupt, right, the service might get cut off. But this isn't a yearly budget item any more than garbage service and water/sewer are budget items that have to be renewed. They're fee-based services that have to pay for themselves.

So what's my point in thrashing through all this? Once again, the incumbent interests are trying to pursue an agenda through misdirection rather than directly addressing what's at stake. They want less regulation in order to more efficiently pursue profit, which is not, in itself, a bad thing in a capitalist society assuming some of the returns go to shareholders. (Not a given in this executive overcompensation day and age.)

The pro-municipal forces state their cases clearly with examples, dollar figures, objectives, and real arguments. They aren't acting as sock puppets for other causes. They represent themselves. These fronts for interests degrade the quality of the debate by trying to slap the equivalent of disinterested academic rigor on top of their statements.

Let me see that Heartland Institute/New Millennium report signed by Verizon Wireless or whoever paid the bill that keeps these institutions humming. I sound pro-municipal wireless, but am actually pro disclosure.

(Disclosure: I believe that cities and other entities should have the right to install their own networks, but am dubious about whether municipal networks that aren't host-neutral will be viable in the long term.)


Utterly ridiculous,
look muni wireless is cool. Cities who want to make wireless networks can, so what if the govner signs something if a city wants to put something up, let them. If verizon doesn't like it, then they should learn to lower the price of ev do. I think the digital devide is a real problem, and wireless access for all in any city would help.

The RBOC's and monopolists have dragged their feet for long enough. They not only have to answer to their shareholders, but to the public that they are supposedly serving. San Francisco is attempting to one up Philly : as part of their infrastructure overhaul, they want to get fiber down there with the sewer and water lines. True "fiber-to-the-door" broadband for everyone (who uses water and electricity, at least) Anyone not living in an outhouse should come out strong for the city council and the supervisors who are attempting to wrest control of the lines of communication away from monopoly profiteers and toward a group of people who, love them or hate them, can be voted out of office. So you'll be subject to endless red ink and long wait times. Can it be any worse than Comcast or SBC? Doubt it.

Why is muni wireless cool? Cause you can get access anywhere and have someone else pay for it? A muni can build one if they want, I don't see how they can justify it when they are steeped in debt and homelessness (see San Francisco). They can't solve these basic problems, why do you expect muni wifi to be any less of a fiasco. The people who will benefit are the beauracrats who get the kick backs from the contractors.

A healthy Muni debate is fine. Cities having a dialogue over whether or not they should build a muni-Wi-Fi or landline network is fine as well. In fact this is ideal, because there's about a thousand ways to fund and deploy such networks.

The problem for me arises with the muni ban legislation being pushed by these bogus front groups and their corporate masters. They don't want a discussion, they want control. They want to take the decision out of the local residents' hands.

O.K. Some points:
1) Can someone please tell me what homelessness has to do with the decision on muni-run Wi-Fi? According to that logic, cities shouldn't spend a dime on anything other than alleviation of homelessness until the problem is solved.
2) Using something someone else is paying for happens everyday: police, fire department, roads, highways, airports, etc.
3) The theory is that government run institutions bad, private or corporate business good. However, many cities with municipal power have lower rates than those served by private concerns. With a government run institution, there is at least the possibility of public oversight.
4)"...beauracrats who get the kick backs from the contractors"??? I am shocked!!! I am sure nothing like that would ever happen in the private sector.

I can't speak for Philly since I have not seen their numbers, but muni WiFi can be done without costing the city a fortune. I have seen the numbers for the city of Hermosa Beach. When you have a very small, dense, and prosperous population, WiFi can be self supporting. With a total cost of less than $20 per resident, Hermosa does not have a huge hurdle to jump to pay for this system.

They already have sponsors paying the bulk of the costs, and with additional revenue from a number of already identified sources, the service might actually raise a few dollars (not a ton) for the city to pay for upgrades or maybe a few potholes.