Problems in Public Utility Paradise, Part 14: Muni Wi-fi Postmortem

by on October 6, 2010 · 5 comments

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:

WiFi cannot deliver a citywide network because technical and regulatory limitations combine to require access points at least every few hundred feet outside and even closer together indoors. Mounting that many access points is generally too expensive and is nearly impossible inside private buildings. WiFi deployments require high-touch, high-density installations. Meanwhile, users often have WiFi access in homes, at work, at coffee shops, in hotels and airports, and in select government buildings. For users who require wireless access outside those areas, private cellular companies offer high-speed 3G wireless data networks using technologies better suited for widespread coverage (because of not only technical differences but also regulatory differences). As a result, the major public WiFi projects were destined for failure and municipalities instead should devote resources to small, focused networks.

Policy makers would be wise to remember the lessons of this experiment next time regulatory activists groups come knocking on their doors with more grandiose “public utility” or even “public media” schemes.  The recent experiment with muni wi-fi again points to the failure of the top-down driven model of planning complex networks and the risks inherent in letting government gamble taxpayer dollars on these risky bets.

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