Cities Rewrite Their Wireless Stories

Published October 1, 2007

There’s a certain amount of rewriting of history going on these days in municipal wireless circles. It 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 now claiming municipal wireless 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, California–which signed up a scant 281 customers on its system–cities are reassessing the concept.

Cities Pull Out

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.” Faced with that prospect, Anchorage, Alaska and Corona, California pulled the plug on their municipal wireless plans. Houston is among the large cities rethinking the proposition as well.

Many are too far into the process to opt out. There are an estimated 300 to 400 U.S. cities, ranging from Los Angeles to Peoria, Illinois, 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 these “private-public partnerships” would cost taxpayers nothing, city officials now have to justify the appropriation of tens of thousands to millions of dollars for the purchase of wireless services.

While a city may indeed benefit from improved communications, it’s important to remember the original municipal 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.

Creating Monopolies

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

After the recent bridge disaster in Minneapolis, the city’s information technology department wasted no time in trumpeting the role the city’s municipal wireless system played in handling emergency communications. Lost 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 the Minneapolis municipal wireless network was crucial in emergency response, we shouldn’t get caught up in a false dichotomy that it’s either municipal wireless or nothing. By granting exclusive right-of-way to one company, MetroFi, Minneapolis 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.

Need for Competition

To date, only a handful of cities, including Corpus Christi, Texas and Providence, Rhode Island, have approached a municipal 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 ideas. When municipal wifi is hyped as a free alternative to cable modems and DSL that can be delivered at a fraction of the cost, disaster follows.

Steven Titch ([email protected]) is senior fellow for IT and telecom policy at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of IT&T News.