Idaho Towns Set Up Wi-Fi; Experts Skeptical

Published April 1, 2009

Municipal wi-fi operations are not just for big cities anymore. Smaller towns are trying their hands at providing “free” high-speed Internet access to their residents.

Experts warn these modest municipalities against putting taxpayers on the hook for the service, saying the private sector is best equipped to provide affordable and convenient wi-fi to the public.

Idaho Rollout

In September 2008 the city of Meridian, Idaho and the Meridian Development Corporation partnered in a wi-fi initiative to provide Internet access in its downtown area. Billing it as a civic revitalization effort, the Development Corporation is funding the first year of the pilot program and will reassess funding with the city in late 2009.

The nearby town of Caldwell soon followed suit by launching a service of its own.

City leaders in both towns say they are reversing the “build it and they will come” muni wi-fi business plan that failed in big cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

Private Practice

Skeptics see little difference—and predict the same troubles that have brought the nearly universal collapse of muni wi-fi programs across the country. They say the government-sponsored plans should be privatized to be competitive, and municipalities have no business spending taxpayer dollars on the service.

Mike Cassity, CEO of BuzzBroadband in St. Louis, said few municipal governments have the expertise or technology to compete with the private sector.

“Frankly, it is not a core competency of most muni governments,” Cassity said. “It is complicated technology and requires a level of expertise for deployment and operation. Very few cities could attract and retain people with that expertise.”

‘Free’ Costs Taxpayers

Moreover, the practice of using taxpayer money to fund broadband services is divisive, Cassity said.

“I come at it from this starting principle: Free doesn’t work,” Cassity said. “I know it’s the desire of a lot of these communities to offer wireless broadband on a free basis, but at the end of the day, somebody has to pay.”

Eliminating Politics

Mark McCarty, a partner in Atlanta law firm Alston & Bird’s technology and telecom litigation practice group, says the private sector—working with a profit motive—is usually the best choice.

“Plus, with a private provider, you eliminate the risk that business decisions about broadband become politicized,” McCarty said.

Celeste Altus ([email protected]writes from Martinez, California.