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10/6/2005
11:58 AM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Debating Municipal Wi-Fi

In the classic war between the pro-government Left and the pro-free-market Right, I'm a member of both camps. Governments are good at providing some services, such as national defense, police, and enforcing building and health codes. On the other hand, free-market capitalism has been a driver of most of the material benefits we enjoy today. Free-market capitalism has provided us with everything from healthcare to indoor plumbing. It also brought us movies starring Rob Schneider. Nobody said th

In the classic war between the pro-government Left and the pro-free-market Right, I'm a member of both camps. Governments are good at providing some services, such as national defense, police, and enforcing building and health codes.

On the other hand, free-market capitalism has been a driver of most of the material benefits we enjoy today. Free-market capitalism has provided us with everything from healthcare to indoor plumbing.

It also brought us movies starring Rob Schneider. Nobody said the free market is perfect.

Then there are other categories of services that are sometimes provided by government and sometimes by the private sector. These include road-building, collecting trash, and even electrical generation.

And there are still other services that are provided by public-private partnerships--and the classic example of that is the Internet itself: developed by government research, made powerful, essential and almost ubiquitous by private industry.

Which side should wireless Internet access fall on? Should private industry provide public wireless connectivity, should it be government, or should there be a partnership between both?I don't know the answer to that one. Nobody does. That's why I'm encouraged to see cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia experiment with setting up municipal Wi-Fi, although lobbyists in Philadelphia tried to kill the measure last year. (Manassas, Va., went another route in providing Internet access, launching a citywide broadband-over-powerline network yesterday.)

And I'm also happy to see other cities -- like, say, the one I live in, lovely La Mesa, Calif., the "Jewel of the Hills" -- do nothing at all in that direction.

Let's let local governments everywhere around the U.S. decide for themselves if they want to provide municipal Wi-Fi. Let's see how that works out.

Some state and federal governments don't see it that way. As my colleague Johanna Ambrosio points out in an opinion column, governors in Virginia and Pennsylvania signed bills restricting their own cities from building their own Wi-Fi networks. U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) introduced a bill preventing localities from offering telecom services except in places where services aren't already available. Read Johanna's piece for more details on how this national debate is playing out.

Ironically, I'm actually an opponent of municipal Wi-Fi. I don't see it as solving any problem that government needs to get involved in. Proponents of municipal Wi-Fi argue that they're trying to close the "digital divide" separating the rich from the poor. I'm not so concerned about the digital divide, I'm more concerned about the "not-having-to-live-in-a-neighborhood-filled-with-crystal-meth-addicts divide" and the "not-dropping-dead-of-a-disease-we've-known-how-to-cure-for-years divide."

Still, I could be wrong. Let's collect information for a few years on how these experiments in municipal Wi-Fi work out. Then let's reconvene and see if we can come to any conclusions on whether the public, private, or hybrid approaches is better.

I figure 10 years should be enough time to make an intelligent decision on whether governments should be banned from the wireless Internet service provider business. I've set aside some time on my calendar for Oct. 6, 2015, to discuss the issue. Be there; I'll bring the bagels and cream cheese.

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