To Wi-Fi or not to Wi-Fi – that is the question

To some it’s the best thing since sliced bread. Others dismiss it as a waste of taxpayers money. The subject of this controversy is Wi-Fi – or more specifically, municipally funded Wi-Fi broadband.

Among those that sing its paeans are officials at the city of Fredericton in New Brunswick.

A recent release from the city begins with this enigmatic question: “How do you turn a city in eastern Canada into a true hot spot through even the coldest winter?” The answer provided: “Blanket it with Wi-Fi.”

The release goes on to catalogue the benefits Fredericton experienced ever since it launched its Wi-Fi network (based on Cisco technology) a little over a year ago. These include: free broadband in public places, easy information access, high availability, saved jobs and the creation of new jobs.

Barely days after the Fredericton release, a U.S.-based research group released a report that debunked municipally funded Wi-Fi broadband networks as an utter waste of tax payers money. Of course, the group’s ties to a Washington, D.C.-based campaign management firm raise questions about the objectivity of its findings.

The U.S. report, which states that municipal Wi-Fi projects cost taxpayers money and hinder private-sector Wi-Fi rollouts, was authored by an outfit called the New Millenium Research Council. The report’s authors stated during a teleconference that neither they, nor the NMRC, receive direct funding from the telecommunications industry. But NMRC is a subsidiary of a firm called Issue Dynamics Inc., which specializes in producing campaigns for corporate clients. Issue Dynamics’ client list is not publicly available.

Authored by a variety of think tank experts, the report states there are “grave flaws” in city-run Wi-Fi networks. It concludes that: Wi-Fi networks would likely cost more than cities anticipate; public funds used for Wi-Fi could be better used elsewhere; municipal Wi-FI networks would liely reduce Wi-Fi investment by private providers; there is no proof that Wi-Fi networks lead to greater econominc development.

“The thinking is this [municipal Wi-Fi networks] is going to bridge the digital divide [between rish and poor] and provide wireless Internet at little or no cost,” said David McClure, president of the U.S. Internet Industry Association, during a teleconference.

The reality though is likely to be much different, McClure noted.

“If you wipe away the thin veneer of hope and hype and overblown rhetoric, the idea of a government-run Internet operated at taxpayer expense is a really bad idea.”

Rather than aiding the poor, municipally subsidized Wi-Fi access will benefit relatveily wealthy mobile workers with expensive laptops, who could afford to pay for Internet access, said Steve Titch, senior fellow at the Heartland Institute.

“We’re being told government has to fund these projects, because service providers aren’t building out fast enough, they’re not building at all, or it’s too expensive for people with limited access to afford,” he said.

In fact, Titch said, the number of wireless access points available in the U.S. continues to grow, even when public access points aren’t included.

Officials at Fredericton, of course, sing a very different tune. City officials believe the Wi-Fi network will help attract business to the city, while improving the quality of life of citizens. Currently the Wi-Fi network reaches about 50 per cent of computer users in Fredericton, but the city ultimately plans to extend the network’s reach to 95 per cent of the computer population. Fredericton officials say the ongoing costs of the Wi-Fi network are low. The broadband fibre network connecting the Wi-Fi points was already in place and serves the Wi-Fi network using surplus capacity.

A variety of U.S. cities are considering, or in the process of deploying, public Wi-Fi networks offering free, or low-cost, Ineternet access. They include Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City and San Francisco.

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