Many of the installments of our ongoing ”Problems in Public Utility Paradise” series here at the TLF have discussed the multiple municipal wi-fi failures of the past few years. Six or so years ago, there was quixotic euphoria out there regarding the prospects for muni wi-fi in numerous cities across America — which was egged on by a cabal of utopian public policy advocates and wireless networking firms eager for a bite of a government service contract. A veritable ‘if-you-build-it-they-will-come’ mentality motivated the movement as any suggestion that the model didn’t have legs was treated as heresy. Indeed, as I noted here before, when I wrote a white paper back in 2005 entitled “Risky Business: Philadelphia’s Plan for Providing Wi-Fi Service,” and kicked it off with the following question: “Should taxpayers finance government entry into an increasingly competitive, but technologically volatile, business market?,” I received a shocking amount of vitriolic hate mail for such a nerdy subject. But facts are pesky things and the experiment with muni wi-fi has proven to be even worse than many of us predicted back then.
A new piece by Christopher Mims over at MIT’s Technology Review (“Where’s All the Free Wi-Fi We Were Promised?“) notes that “no technology happens in a vacuum, and where the laws of the land abut the laws of nature, physics will carve your best-laid plans into a heap of sundered limbs every time.” He continues, “the failure of municipal WiFi is an object lesson in the dangers of techno-utopianism. It’s a failure of intuition — the sort of mistake we make when we want something to be right.” Too true. Mims was inspired to pen his essay after reading a new paper, “A Postmortem Look at Citywide WiFi“, by Eric M. Fraser, the Executive Director for Research at the Committee on Capital Markets Regulation. “Almost everyone was fooled by the promise of citywide WiFi,” Fraser notes, because of the promise of a “wireless fantasy land” that would almost magically spread cheap broadband to the masses. But, for a variety of reasons — most of which are technical in nature — muni wifi failed. Fraser summarizes as follows: Continue reading →
As we’ve noted here before in our ongoing series on “Problems in Public Utility Paradise,” municipal wi-fi experiments and local government fiber investments don’t have a very impressive track record. The Philadelphia experiment, which I have discussed here before many times, has been particularly instructive. As Dan P. Lee documented in this spectacular Philadelphia magazine article last year, the city’s subsidized wi-fi system, Wireless Philadelphia, was a political and technical fiasco of the highest order right from the start. It unraveled fairly quickly after its 2005 launch and now, according to The Philadelphia Business Journal:
The city of Philadelphia said Wednesday it intends to purchase, for $2 million, the wireless network constructed by EarthLink Inc. to turn the entire city into a Wifi hotspot. The city said it intends to exercise an option in an agreement signed in August to buy the network from Network Acquisition Co. LLC, which took the network over from Atlanta-based EarthLink in June 2008. The city said the purchase will be the first in a series of steps to create a wireless network it will use to enhance public safety, improve government efficiency and provide Internet access in targeted public places. The city said creating that network will require it to spend nearly $17 million over its 2011 through 2015 fiscal years. The money would go to building out both the core fiber network it already owns and the wireless mesh network it intends to purchase from Network Acquisition Co…
In other words, taxpayers are stuck picking up the tab for this failed experiment and now have to hope that the city can somehow manage it into profitability. Well, good luck with that. Even Karl Bode of Broadband Reports, someone who usually has nothing but nice things to say about Big Government high-tech projects and regulation, is forced to admit that the script for muni wi-fi paradise didn’t quite play out as expected:
Network Acquisition Corporation purchased the network from Earthlink back in 2008, when Earthlink bailed (and we really mean bailed) on their muni-fi ambitions. The buyers briefly tinkered with free access and claimed they’d expand the network, but ultimately wound up being only a stepping stone between Earthlink and Philadelphia control. Philadelphia’s use of Wi-Fi as a municipal efficiency and communications tool is a growing trend among cities, many of which found that broad, free Wi-Fi for all simply wasn’t sustainable.
Do you mean to say that there is no such thing as a free lunch? I am shocked, shocked! Well, actually, I’m not. Continue reading →
[This is part of an ongoing series about "Problems in Public Utility Paradise."]
According to this recent article by Donald Meyers of the Salt Lake City Tribune, five candidates for mayor of Provo, Utah are falling all over themselves to declare their support for continuing the public utility fiasco that is iProvo, the city’s fiber-to-the-home network. According to Wikipedia, it is the largest municipally-owned Fiber to the Home network in the United States.” Steve Titch of the Reason Foundation, who has been following iProvo for many years, has documented its millions of dollars of losses and risk to taxpayers, saying “iProvo is a dismal financial failure by any standard.” But that isn’t stopping city officials and mayoral candidates from proposing to throw more money at this massive “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” fantasy. “One thing most of the candidates running for mayor agree on: iProvo is too important to fail, even if it means bailing out the company that bought it,” Meyers reports. Here’s the relevant passages from his article, with the key bits of bad info highlighted:
The city sold the troubled fiber-optic network to Broadweave Networks in 2008 in a deal in which Broadweave would take over the payments on the city’s $39.6 million bond. Since November, Broadweave has had the city draw on its $6 million surety deposit to make its bond payments in a bid to build up cash to pay for growth.
In August, Veracity Communications merged with Broadweave, becoming Veracity Networks. The company’s leaders, Drew Peterson and David Moon, have asked the city to restructure the payment schedule to allow the company to cut back on its payments for 18 months while it strengthens its coffers. It later would pay extra money over a seven-year period and reimburse the city with interest. Provo would draw on its Energy Department’s reserves to make up the shortfall in bond payments — $1.4 million.
Continue reading →
For some time now here at the TLF, we have been documenting the track record of various government-owned or subsidized utility projects — municipal wi-fi projects, locally-owned telecom ventures, city or state fiber projects, and so on. We’ve attempted to see if the rhetoric matches the reality when it comes to the grandiose promises made about government investment or ownership of communications or broadband networks being our ticket to high-tech paradise.
The results? Well, the record speaks for itself. It’s been one miserable failure after another. And yet the high-tech pork barrel rolls on and taxpayers are all too often stuck picking up the tab.
I just wanted to make everyone aware of the fact that I finally got around to collecting most of our essays on the subject here into an “Ongoing Series” page that will be permanently housed here. (As far as I can tell, we’re up to about 18 or 19 installments). I encourage my TLF contributors to help me contribute entries to the series and I also invite our readers to continue to submit examples of these experiments so we can continue to document their failure. Of course, if there are success stories, we’d like to hear about those too. But that will likely be a much shorter series!