Privacy advocates ask more of new Wi-Fi networks than of incumbents: Greg Richardson is the usually poised head of Civitium, the firm that has written many of the requests for proposals (RFPs) used by municipalities around the US and internationally that solicit bids for companies to build, typically at the companies' expense, metropolitan-scale Wi-Fi and wireless networks. San Francisco has made him lose his cool towards what he describes as "the far-left viewpoints being expressed by the ACLU (on electronic consumer privacy) and ILSR (on public ownership)" (that's the Institute for Local Self-Reliance).
Richardson points out that the far-right opinions initially dominated the debate over whether cities should get into the business of building broadband networks. These "far-right" opinions were largely, but not entirely, issued by organizations that either didn't reveal their funding but are known to be sock puppets of incumbent interests, or those that did disclose their funding, which included incumbents.
In San Francisco, the left-leaning elements have come into play in a way that Richardson thinks is outrageously unfair. In this case, however, there's no allegation of filthy lucre; it's pure ideology. The opposite of a sock puppet, which appears to have no witty name.
Civitium built the San Francisco RFP, and has apparently been involved in the negotiations, so Richardson is in a position to know what horse trading took place. He argues on the privacy side that not only does EarthLink's agreement offer more protection than any similar agreement anywhere else, but that the incumbents in SF aren't subject to anything like the protections that EarthLink will offer. (There are differences, of course, in what you can track on a Wi-Fi network versus a home broadband connection, but cellular data networks have much in common in terms of privacy given up.)
Richardson says that the EarthLink agreement with SF allows for additional privacy standards to be applied but only a non-discriminatory basis against "all similarly situated providers of broadband service." So why just pick on the new guy? Why not make AT&T and others toe the line, too? "What was the Board doing about electronic consumer privacy in San Francisco before the EarthLink agreement was delivered to them?" Richardson asks.
On public ownership, Richardson paints the folks at ILSR as, more or less, socialists, wanting public ownership and the public realization of potential profits. The conservative side of the debate has often focused on whether public bodies should bear the risk and, when successful, reap the reward of public ownership of facilities typically handled in a marketplace. The liberal side usually expects that public ownership produces more egalitarian access to any given facility (quality schools, broadband, bus service, etc.), and that so-called profit represents market inefficiency for a basic service that should, in fact, be conserved for taxpayers (in the form of less taxation) or government (in the form of greater resources to achieve more).
I don't pretend to be an economist, but I do know that I would prefer that cities hire companies that have the expertise to build networks of this scale, and conserve as much risk in these early stages as possible. One example ILSR widely cites is St. Louis Park, Minn., which hired private firms to build a public network that will be fully owned by the city. Or St. Cloud, Flor., which has a free network built and owned by the city. For smaller towns, especially those that might lag in broadband adoption, city-owned networks have less risk and lower overall cost and complexity. There are good cases to be made for cities of a few tens of thousands to take the matter in their own hands because they're increasingly unlikely to find a firm with substantial experience willing to take the risk for a small population of users.
Public ownership is usually recommended when there's a large civic benefit that can be quantified and understood, and where private partners are either unavailable or unwilling to participate in sharing risk. The fiber-optic project that San Francisco's Board of Supervisors promotes is an interesting case in point, and reminds me of the big "risk" that Tacoma Power took in building their Click Network. I cite Click all the time, because while the network showed up in many sock-puppet and non-funded reports arguing against muni ownership, it's actually a big success.
Tacoma Power needed to upgrade their electrical grid, and could have justified building out a fiber-optic network practically without any resale of broadband. In the mid-1990s, when the plan was hatched, it took 18 months to get a new phone line in Tacoma, and the incumbent telco and cable operator had no plans for upgrades. The power utility also expected deregulation would force them into financial straits. Thus, the perfect storm: They needed a new, competitive business; the city needed better telecom and data infrastructure; and the grid needed "smarts."
Finding that perfect storm for Wi-Fi in today's climate is much more difficult.
I can't argue that EarthLink's deal with any city is perfect, nor any of the major Wi-Fi operators deals are perfect. The question is always--what is a city giving up by going into a long-term arrangement that is essentially a franchise in that the likelihood of competing networks with similar characteristics become practically zero when a municipally authorized network is built?
Richardson's rant is a good read, and I'll be curious as to the fallout.
My parting remark? New York has been trying to put in automated, self-cleaning toilets for well over a decade, with firms vying for the opportunity to install these rest facilities with lucrative advertising paying the cost. Wrangling over fine details, massive changes in plans, and special interest groups have led to one result: No toilets. In the meantime, other "hotspot" public toilets have sprung up paid by business improvement districts, private enterprise, or specific transportation authorities. Sound familiar?