Wi-Fi for All?

People who believe that cities should provide wireless Internet for all their citizens are feeling pretty good this week. Philadelphia picked Earthlink to build and ...
by | October 4, 2005

People who believe that cities should provide wireless Internet for all their citizens are feeling pretty good this week. Philadelphia picked Earthlink to build and maintain its citywide wi-fi hotspot. Meanwhile, Google energized its many search-engine fans by offering to build a wi-fi hotspot for San Francisco.

Suddenly, municipal wireless on a large scale not only looks feasible but it also, remarkably, looks to come pretty much free. Wifi

Where Philadelphia had initially budgeted about $20 million for its wireless plan, Earthlink now envisions running it at no charge to the city. Same in San Francisco, where Google proposes to offer wi-fi to consumers for free, and pay for the service with advertising.

(Lost in the usual Google-mania was the fact that nearly two dozen other vendors, including Cingular, Motorola and Nortel, also responded to San Francisco's request for information on how to provide free, or at least very cheap, wi-fi for all.)

It's early still, so don't run off to Fisherman's Wharf or Penn's Landing with your laptop just yet. I'll believe widely-available free Internet access when I see it. But this week's news does suggest that the business model around municipal wireless may be changing in the cities' favor.

It may also poke holes in arguments that opponents of municipal broadband always make. One is that government has no business subsidizing services that telephone and cable companies already provide. If free wi-fi works as a business model, that argument becomes harder to make.

Second, opponents like to suggest that municipal broadband is a risky, high-stakes gamble that cities won't want to take on themselves. That argument, too, may be fizzling. If all you need to pay for free wi-fi is some advertising, and your vendor will sell the ads, then providing it no longer sounds so complicated. Suddenly, it all sounds as simple as a Google search.

MORE: The Big Band Era (Governing, January 2005)