For many local governments, the Wi-Fi gold rush ended last November. That's when Internet service provider Earthlink announced that "significant further investments" in its municipal wireless business did not make sense for its shareholders.
Earthlink's news was no surprise. Earlier, the Atlanta-based company had announced big layoffs and vague plans for reorganizing its municipal broadband group. Since Earthlink was the leading corporate player in the field, its troubles did not bode well for community wireless initiatives, some of which were abruptly put on hold.
The end of the local Wi-Fi boom presents an opportunity for government leaders to shift their focus from this specific technology to a broader policy discussion about U.S. broadband competitiveness and access. Wireless technologies of some sort will likely be an important component of any national strategy to shore up and extend the nation's infrastructure for electronic networking.
Unfortunately, after the headaches and embarrassment that foundering Wi-Fi projects have caused in some places, local leaders elsewhere may be reluctant to risk political capital on questions about the future of broadband in their communities, especially if the W word is involved. And with telecom lobbyists asking hard questions about whether government should play any role in providing broadband access, there's a lot of political capital at stake.
It's not that wireless services don't have a place in local government. There are all kinds of ways cable-free Internet connections can help public agencies do business more efficiently or effectively. But meter reading, security cameras and remote Internet connections for government employees are a long way from the original goals of some of the more grandiose wireless proposals.
Those plans looked to low-cost, if not free, wireless networks to create new educational and economic opportunities. That's what early enthusiasts such as former Philadelphia CIO Dianah L. Neff had in mind when she helped former Mayor John F. Street sell Philadelphia's wireless venture as a tool for transforming that city's most poverty-stricken neighborhoods. As Neff put it, "How can any 21st-century city leave a third of their population behind?"
Philadelphia's bold experiment, unfortunately, started a highly infectious case of press-release politics, in which municipality after municipality announced ambitious plans to go wireless. At a summit of local CIOs hosted by the Public Technology Institute in Phoenix in November, the technology leader of one large local government recalled trying to talk a council member out of announcing a big wireless proposal. No luck. An overlapping jurisdiction had already unveiled its Wi-Fi plans and keeping up with the Joneses was more important than vetting business models.
Like Philadelphia, many towns, cities and counties partnered with Earthlink to turn their press releases into technical and financial plans. But the business case for those deals was far from clear, and now the future of those initiatives is just as murky.
After Earthlink's November announcement, Wireless Philadelphia, the non-profit organization that's overseeing the Wi-Fi initiative there, reported that the company had already provided coverage to 75 percent of the city and was still hard at work.
But officials also were hinting at the time that Earthlink might ultimately decide it wants out of the deal. As of early December, the company's plans in Philadelphia were not known.
Meanwhile, another Earthlink Wi-Fi partner, Houston, was making plans for a new "digital inclusion" project -- funded with part of a $5 million contractual penalty Earthlink paid for delays in building a wireless network there. The city's new plan included creating or expanding Wi-Fi hot spots in certain neighborhoods. "One of the goals was to bridge the digital divide," Mayor Bill White has said, "and because of the city's good contract, we have substantial money to invest in that."
That's well and good, as is the sustained enthusiasm of other Wi-Fi advocates, such as MuniWireless.com founder Esme Vos, who makes a strong case for the technology's continued potential in small to medium-size communities. But it's time to look beyond this one technology. Policy makers at all levels of government -- local, state and federal -- need to join with the private sector to develop a coherent strategy for increasing the availability, affordability and performance of all broadband services. Wireless technologies will play a part in that future, but only a part.
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