Municipal Consultant Rips Broadband Activists

Published May 1, 2007

The head of one of the top international municipal wireless consulting firms has accused the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) of promoting a political agenda at the expense of a sound business plan for a metropolitan wireless system that could provide free service to low-income residents of San Francisco.

Writing in his blog on February 14, Greg Richardson, founder and managing partner of the municipal wireless consulting firm Civitium, attacked both groups in the wake of a decision by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to put on hold a municipal wireless plan proposed by EarthLink and Google in order to study feasibility of a government-owned system.

Richardson’s comments could signal a fracturing of the alliance between municipal broadband activists and the growing number of enterprises aiming to provide wireless network equipment and services for municipalities.

Corporate Pullout Possible

Many analysts believe that if the city continues to keep plan approval on indefinite hold, EarthLink and Google will ultimately pull out. Together, the two firms had proposed a citywide wireless system featuring a lower-speed, 200 Mb/s tier that would be available for free and supported by advertising.

The ACLU and ILSR objected to the advertising component, arguing it would urge low-income users to make purchases they could not afford and, if location-based technology were involved (as proposed), would violate users’ privacy.

Both groups, along with a number of other Bay Area activists, have been urging the city to dump the $10 million Google-EarthLink proposal and fund, operate, and own its own network.

Ideology Intruded

Civitium generally urges cities to partner with private-sector service providers, such as EarthLink and MetroFi, and let those companies finance, build, and operate the municipal network.

Civitium works on behalf of cities to structure a request for proposal and evaluate responses, and it helps municipal administrations understand the costs, capabilities, and limitations of wireless technology, in part to avoid overhyping and overpromising the benefits of the technology.

San Francisco hired Civitium to evaluate the bids for its citywide wireless plan. The company also is working with officials in Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Corpus Christi, Texas. Outside the United States, Civitium has consulted for CountryTell; Albury-Wodonga, Australia; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Richardson did not return phone calls seeking further comment.

In his February 14 blog item, Richardson wrote, “The ongoing debate in San Francisco about how the city proceeds with its WiFi initiative demonstrates–more than any similar initiative to date–how ideology plays a central role in the world of public broadband.”

Richardson wrote he is now learning the hard way that “decisions are not made based solely on financial analysis and technical assumptions; they are clearly grounded in ideology.”

‘Government Not the Answer’

“This really reinforces that when it comes to bridging the digital divide, the government is not the answer,” said Vince Vasquez, policy fellow at the Pacific Research Institute and co-author of Wi-Fi Waste: The Disaster of Municipal Communications Networks. (See article, page 10.) “When Mayor Gavin Newsom was running for office, he talked about free wireless for everyone. Then, in 2005, free wireless became a ‘right.'”

Vasquez said if the government becomes too involved in the process, it leads to delays–as in San Francisco–and can lead to companies going elsewhere, where there is less government interference and imposed costs.

“The most appropriate role for the government is to provide vouchers in low-income areas because people there are at a disadvantage,” Vasquez said. This is particularly important for children, he said, who can benefit from educational materials available online, but only if they have access.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.

For more information …

Greg Richardson, “Municipal Wi-deology,” Civitium Weblog, February 14, 2007,