DC City Council Considers Taxpayer-Funded Wi-Fi Program

Published June 7, 2016

Washington, DC City Council lawmakers are considering legislation to create a government commission to study how to implement a network of taxpayer-funded internet Wi-Fi access points, also called “internet hotspots,” throughout the city.

If approved by the council and signed into law by Mayor Muriel Bowser, the Wi-Fi Taskforce Act, sponsored by Councilmember Vincent Orange in April, would require the committee to meet eight times per year and create a plan for a proposed Wi-Fi network covering the city.

‘Wave After Wave’

James Gattuso, a senior research fellow at the Roe Institute for Economic Policy at The Heritage Foundation, says taxpayer-funded wireless internet networks have a long history of failing to deliver on their promises.

“There have been wave after wave of bankruptcies,” Gattuso said. “It’s not something cities do well, and it’s something taxpayers lose out on. It costs them money, and they do not end up with better service.”

Gattuso says the DC city government has a track record of failing taxpayers.

“DC is a city that has taken five years to get a trolley running in northwest Washington, DC,” Gattuso said. “It’s still not available. I don’t have confidence they can run a lemonade stand.”

No Market Failure

Gattuso says most people who are not connected to the internet do so by choice, not because they don’t have access to internet options.

“There tends to be an assumption that when people don’t have broadband, it’s because they can’t afford it, but if you look at the numbers, that’s a very small amount, a very small portion of the public,” Gattuso said. “Most people who don’t have broadband, even in low-income areas, don’t have it because they don’t believe they need it. They don’t want it. They don’t feel like they have a use for it.”

‘Plenty’ of Competition

Scott Cleland, a telecommunications policy advisor for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News, says there is no need for the government to step in and provide internet access as an entitlement.

“There’s plenty of broadband competition in DC and in every other city,” Cleland said.

Unfair Playing Field

Cleland says government internet service providers have unfair advantages over private companies.

“People can put Wi-Fi routers in buildings, but when you start trying to construct them citywide, you become a competitor to existing wireless providers,” Cleland said. “No company can compete with city halls that control the regulations and taxes, so it’s really one of the ultimately unfair issues, in the sense that cities control wireless provision.”

Danedri Herbert ([email protected]) writes from Kansas City, Kansas.

Internet Info:

Jason Potts, “Economics of Public Wifi,” Australian Journal of Telecommunications and the Digital Economy, March 1, 2014: https://www.heartland.org/policy-documents/economics-public-wifi/