January 4th, 2007

Why is the Bay Area Guardian Arguing Against Free Wi-Fi?

The San Francisco Bay Guardian posted an Editorial “Free Wi-Fi for Everyone” this week. The author is arguing against allowing Earthlink and Google to build a Wi-Fi network in San Francisco that would offer ONLY 300 kilobytes per second for free. As with many issues, there is another side to these arguments.

  • Yes, every mayor with political ambitions is seeking free Wi-Fi or more affordable broadband access for everyone. Why not? Gavin did well to announce his project early and offer up an attractive market (and test bed) early. With Earthlink and Google, he has great partners with the tech-savvy, experience and resources to pull off a project unlike any other to date – and without using taxpayer dollars. He still has a lot of work ahead of him to get computers into those same households that don’t have broadband today. And, yes, there may be some growing pains with being an early adopter, but are also significant benefits (e.g., terms of the deal).
  • The public sector doesn’t have the expertise to build and operate such a network. This may be one of the first instances of widespread use of unlicensed spectrum. Companies operating in the municipal Wi-Fi space are taking risks that the city can’t afford to take. Also, ownership by a private entity bypasses the legal issues associated with a city’s right to go head-to-head with the private sector on these projects. (Anyone remember the early discussions around the Philadelphia project?) In San Francisco, it adds a third infrastructure play and more competition.
  • 300 kilobytes per second ONLY for free. If I’m reading my broadband bill correctly, I think I’m paying $30+ per month for this now. On my laptop through a cellular service provider, it’s $60 per month for this speed. Not to state the obvious, but 300 is greater than zero. 300 kilobytes per second is sufficient for email, web browsing, chat, etc. – what people spend the majority of their time doing online. It’s sufficient for filling out job applications online.
  • And yes, both Google and Earthlink are for-profit companies. Why shouldn’t they make money? Why shouldn’t their vendors (e.g., Tropos) make money? In any case, both Google and Earthlink have their work cut out for them. Customer acquisition is tough and expensive whether you are Earthlink or Google. What’s wrong with more advertising options for local businesses?

Yes, I’d like to have fiber to my home. My grandmother has it in the town of Colo, IA population 900. I’ll leave a discussion around the economics and policy of this subject to the broadband analysts.

It’s not clear that the city is forever dooming itself to expensive, slow broadband by allowing for-profit companies to provide services.

There are a lot of cities out there that would take this deal. I’d be surprised if there aren’t some mayors ringing Earthlink and Google and asking them to bring the same deal to their hometown if things fall through in San Francisco. There are certainly easier pickings for consumer broadband in cities without the high level of adoption that exists in San Francisco.

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