The Other Side of Muni WiFi
I recently spoke at a symposium, which was mostly populated with local officials from eastern Massachusetts. I am a former elected eastern-Massachusetts politician myself (and still an appointed official in my town), so it was easy to relate to where the majority was coming from: Let's provide WiFi as a municipal service just like water and trash pickup, and do it at a price the carriers can't touch. And let's use the technology for our own internal municipal purposes and for socially worthy goals like bridging the digital divide.
Unfortunately, all that is easier said than done. Owning and operating a communications network of any form isn't easy at all. As I reminded the audience, the basic hardware required (mesh access points) are cheap and getting cheaper, but the operational costs -- operational support systems (OSS), marketing, customer acquisition, support, billing, etc. -- are not traditional local government functions. The openness of WiFi to competition also needs to be considered -- a municipality cannot lock out competition with WiFi anymore than anyone else can.
I tend to follow the philosophy of government as context rather than content. In other words, government should regulate and encourage the private sector to provide services and otherwise compete for business on a level playing field within the community. But it shouldn't try to provide services (in most cases, anyway), especially those involving rapidly advancing technology and that are in competition with those that they already regulate and tax. We thus encourage innovation and avoid conflicts of interest.
Needless to say, this view isn't universally shared here in the Commonwealth (or lots of other places, I suspect). Indeed, one viewpoint expressed at the symposium was that Internet access is already commoditized, so why not have local governments jump in as monopoly wireless ISPs?
Commoditized? Hardly. ISPs offer all manner of services and pricing packages. And an evolving government monopoly on WiFi, enabled by tax dollars and the consequential artificially low prices, would, in my opinion, be like any other monopoly. To me, it's all about choice. And government should indeed step in when choice no longer exists, or when supply and demand do not balance (as in healthcare). We're certainly not there today with municipal WiFi, even in Massachusetts.
— Craig Mathias is Principal Analyst at the Farpoint Group , an advisory firm specializing in wireless communications and mobile computing. Special to Unstrung