Investigations made by a local newspaper found a regional government program in California tasked with the installation and operation of municipal Wi-Fi networks in cities with low-income households between Long Beach and Pasadena failed to provide Wi-Fi access after receiving nearly $500,000 in taxpayer funds from the state’s public utility regulatory agency.
In March 2015, the South Bay Regional Broadband Consortium, part of the state’s Rural and Urban Regional Broadband Consortia, reported 24 different taxpayer-funded Wi-Fi internet access “hotspots”—locations with hardware equipment allowing open internet access to anyone wishing to connect—had been installed and activated between 2012 and 2014.
Investigations led by The Los Angeles Times over the past year checked the 24 locations for Wi-Fi availability, including eight in government parks, and found none of the purported hotspots actually worked.
No Need for Intervention
Craig Eyermann, a research fellow with Independent Institute, says private groups of individuals or businesses can increase Wi-Fi availability more efficiently than taxpayer-funded government initiatives.
“There’s no need for any government intervention or subsidies here,” Eyermann said. “One way to overcome that problem would be for a potential customer to get with one of their friends or neighbors to share the cost of their service. Once again, there is no need for the government to be involved, because the people who really desire the service are able to get it at a cost they find affordable. Everybody agrees to the arrangement, everybody wins, which is something that anyone who ever had a roommate to share living expenses with or went in with a friend to buy something together knows.”
Eyermann says the government should not be providing taxpayer-funded internet and instead should ensure public money is not wasted.
“The only proper role of the government in this situation is to criminally prosecute those who contributed to the waste of the public’s money and trust as they exploited the poor,” Eyermann said.
‘They Think It’s Going to Be Easy’
Steven Titch, a telecommunications policy analyst for The Heartland Institute, says municipal Wi-Fi programs such as the Rural and Urban Regional Broadband Consortia are often doomed from the start.
“This is what happens when government gets involved in high-tech [industries],” Titch said. “Municipal broadband, … they think it’s going to be easy, but when the rubber hits the road, they find out it’s not easy and they’re in over their heads. That’s what’s happened here.”
Repeating Past Failures
Titch says lawmakers should stop repeating the mistakes of past taxpayer-funded internet programs.
“I don’t know why this idea persists, because there are really only maybe a handful of systems that have been completed and that are operating,” Titch said.
Jenni White ([email protected]) writes from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Eric M. Fraser, “The Failure of Public WiFi,” Journal of Technology Law & Policy, September 28, 2008: https://www.heartland.org/policy-documents/failure-public-wifi/