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Muni WiFi Fuss

4:20 PM -- It's not too often that The Nation weighs in on wireless networking technologies, but you can count on the venerable lefty magazine to be filled with fear and trembling when it does. That's the case with Jeff Chester's piece on muni WiFi networks, "Google's WiFi Privacy Ploy."

Nutshell version: Chester worries that Google and its partner EarthLink are selling a public service to cities like San Francisco where they propose to build citywide free wireless networks, when in fact what's happening is far more capitalistic and insidious: "Consumers and public officials should have no illusions that what is being touted as a public benefit is also designed to spur the growth of a mobile marketing ecosystem, an emerging field of electronic commerce that is expected to generate huge revenues for Google, Microsoft, AT&T and many others." (See Hotspot Invaders.)

I'll buy that, as far as it goes; but the argument that companies will build extensive wireless mesh networks in order to collect consumer info and target advertising based thereon misses a key point: The consumers who use the relatively low-speed, free service (as opposed to the higher-speed, $20-a-month version) will, by definition, be low-income families who are not exactly the high-discretionary-spending types that advertisers covet (or they'll just be cheap, which amounts to the same thing).

In other words, muni WiFi networks will by their nature sort themselves into tiers, and worrying that ravenous corporations will data-mine the lowest tiers for mobile marketing data is focusing on the wrong risk. I'm betting that a low-income, single mother in inner-city L.A., for example, would gladly sacrifice some privacy, and be subjected to some advertising, in order to provide her kids with some form of Internet connectivity.

Network Computing editor Rob Preston (who's also the editorial director for CMP's Enterprise Group) considers the economics of muni WiFi and reaches a simple but telling point: There are many ways to skin the city-wireless-network cat, and the shiny new networks being built right now might not be the ones that actually work, or benefit the citizenry. In fact, muni WiFi may work better in smaller, more contained (and targeted) deployments than, say, all of Philadelphia. (See Muni WiFi: Changing the Game.)

"Big city Wi-Fi may very well be the real deal," writes Preston, "but a few intrepid municipalities may have to make some costly mistakes before we know for sure."

Indeed, those lamppost APs will be great for festooning with Christmas decorations.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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