Cities Are Rewriting Their Wireless Stories

Published September 15, 2007

There’s a certain amount of “retconning” going on these days in municipal wireless circles.

The term retcon, meaning “retroactive continuity,” describes the after-the-fact addition of new information to account for purposeful changes or inadvertent errors in a serial narrative. The term was first coined by comic book authors, who often have had to contrive sudden revelations to explain an inconsistency in plot or character history.

Such rewriting of history is happening in numerous cities whose governments have fallen for the hype about municipal wireless and now find themselves millions of dollars in debt with underused systems.

Anxious to justify these escalating costs to weary taxpayers and newly skeptical media, cities are rewriting the narrative. Municipal wireless, goes the new version, is all about improving emergency response and public safety. As reports come in from Philadelphia, where EarthLink has had to place twice as many wireless access points as originally planned, to Lompoc, Calif., which signed up a scant 281 customers on its system, cities are reassessing the concept.

Cincinnati avoided that kind of scenario this past week when City Manager Milton Dohoney decided to pull the plug on municipal wireless – for now.

That EarthLink and MetroFi now say they will not offer low-cost or free tiers of wireless service unless a city commits to being an “anchor tenant” has not helped the outlook. Faced with this choice, Anchorage, Alaska, and Corona, Calif., pulled the plug on their own muni plans.

Many, however, many are past the point of opting out. Minneapolis is among the estimated 300 to 400 U.S. cities, ranging from Los Angeles to Peoria, Ill., that have such projects in the works. Having been caught up in the hype, they are fast learning there’s no such thing as free wireless.

Those cities face a problem. Having originally told residents that these “private-public partnerships” would cost taxpayers nothing, they now have to justify the appropriation of thousands of dollars for the purchase of wireless services.

While the city may indeed benefit from improved communications, it’s important to remember that the original muni wireless deal was based on promising cheap Internet for citizens, not on the city’s communications priorities. It’s reasonable to ask if the city and, by extension, taxpayers, are getting a good deal.

The process suggests otherwise. In most cases, cities did their best to squeeze top dollar from their wireless partner for exclusive use of city right-of-way. Now they’re forced to buy service exclusively from the franchised monopoly they created. Hence, the attempt to paste over past promises about cheap or free Internet with a smiley face about how great muni wireless can be in a crisis.

After last week’s bridge disaster in Minneapolis, the city’s information technology department wasted no time in trumpeting the role the city’s muni wireless system had in handling emergency communications. Lost in all of this was the telling fact, reported almost offhandedly by ComputerWorld, that just 1,000 users were on the municipal system the day the bridge collapsed. This was on a warm summer Friday in a city of 383,000 and thousands more commuters and visitors.

While there’s no doubt that Minneapolis municipal wireless network was crucial in emergency response, we shouldn’t get caught up in a false dichotomy that it’s either muni or nothing. By granting exclusive right-of-way to one company, MetroFi, the city drove away potential competitors that could have just as easily set up service for the city at less cost. Openness, not exclusivity, fuels investment, and it leads to true competition, not simply the addition of a city-government broadband anointee.

To date, only a handful of cities, such as Corpus Christi, Texas, and Providence, R.I., have approached a muni wireless project by assessing their own needs first, and treating wireless network procurement like any other competitive bid. These have a better chance at success, because they went into the process with much more realistic business cases.

Don’t be fooled. With too much political capital at stake, no one’s going to admit failure. The politicians just do what clever comic book writers do when confronted with a disjointed narrative – rewrite history.

Steven Titch ([email protected]) is senior fellow for IT and telecom policy at the Heartland Institute.