Life, Liberty and Free WiFi

By Robert MacMillan Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005; 10:00 AM

Friday was more than Arbor Day in Ohio; it was also the first Wireless Dayton Day.

As the Daily News reported, it was the city's attempt to entice people into using its new WiFi hot zone. Hot zones, if you don't already know, are areas where people can get a wireless connection to the Internet, and more cities and towns are looking into setting them up as perks for their residents and visitors.

Even if this strikes you as yesterday's news, the free hot zone idea is catching on all over the country. The San Francisco Chronicle reported today that a four-block portion of Fillmore street and two blocks of Castro street will become a free WiFi zone, courtesy of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Anchor Free Wireless. And the Grand Rapids Press last week notified readers that most of the Michigan town's downtown section will be covered by a free wireless zone for eight weeks as part of a demonstration project to determine whether the city should go all WiFi all the time. Finally, a story in last week's Sun-Sentinel said that Hollywood and Pembroke Pines, Fla., will take the big WiFi plunge.

Knowing that easy Internet access is buzzing all around you and that Web-surfing is no longer an activity that requires you to stay at home tethered to your DSL or cable modem is indeed an attractive prospect. You could be forgiven for wondering where the rub is. Unfortunately, there is one -- the telecommunications industry. Unhappy that local governments are making WiFi Internet part of the public infrastructure (akin to roads and sewer lines), top Internet service providers are working hard in statehouses across the nation to ban municipalities from offering free wireless Internet access.

Here's how the Chronicle sums it up: "On one side are city governments that are considering creating municipal wireless systems to help bridge the digital divide. On the other side is the telecommunications industry, which sees such efforts -- funded by tax dollars -- as a threat to private businesses. ... David McClure, chief executive of the U.S. Internet Industry Association, a trade group of Internet and telecommunications companies, opposes most public funding of WiFi. He fears that cities will stifle competition to protect their investments. In any case, private firms are better equipped to do the job, McClure said. Taxpayers shouldn't have to bear the financial risk, he added. 'What we are really doing is creating a massive white elephant project for a handful of citizens,' he said."

The Chronicle said that a bill before the California Assembly would outlaw taxpayer funding for such plans, including San Fran Mayor Gavin Newsom's idea to cover the whole city with free WiFi . That plan has a ways to go until completion, with a report on its feasibility due later this year. And for what it's worth, AnchorFree's wireless service is company-funded.

The Sun-Sentinel wrote that Hollywood, Fla.'s, commissioners "are working furiously on their hot zones, trying to beat the Legislature that 'seems hell-bent on ensuring that only private' businesses can build and profit from wireless networks," as Mayor Mara Giulianti put it. Giulianti said the city rushed the plan into action in order to beat the bills now before the legislature in Tallahassee. Pembroke Pines didn't act so quickly, and now the city commissioners are debating whether to start the project at all. Not only that, the Sun-Sentinel also reported that "[a] new technology, growing in popularity, allows a computer to link to the Web anywhere a cell phone works. That would make an investment in wi-fi useless."

WiFi Detente

Grand Rapids, however, may provide an example of how the local phone company and dominant Internet service provider can work with the city, rather than at odds with it. Sally Wesorick, the city's WiFi project manager, told the Press that the city is getting assistance from SBC to run the network. "We have no intention of competing with the private sector," she said.

Similar efforts at tolerance -- if not brotherly love -- also are underway in Philadelphia, which by now has gotten more than its fill of being touted as the birthplace of the free WiFi revolution. Philadelphia, as some of you recall, last year started offering wireless access in a one-mile radius from Love Park in Center City. The idea of having a city-wide WiFi zone drove local phone giant Verizon not only to extreme distraction but straight to the statehouse in Harrisburg where it tried to get the plan outlawed.

Verizon reached a deal with Philadelphia last December that said the company wouldn't challenge the plan, though Gov. and former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell (D) subsequently signed a bill that would allow Verizon to -- as the Associated Press put it -- scuttle the project in the future.

The city's " Wireless Philadelphia" effort, meanwhile, is supposed to get going by late summer 2006 and cost approximately $20 a month, Reuters reported. That, of course, is about half the cost of a normal wireless connection. Philadelphia Mayor John Street (D) placed the city in the vanguard of the public WiFi movement, telling reporters, "People are watching all over the world to determine whether a city of 135 square miles can become one big hot spot. ... People want to be connected, and we think it is our obligation to provide that kind of access."

It might be difficult to justify this push as an "obligation." It certainly is an attractive feature to lure new residents, as I noted above. As cities continue to compete for taxpaying residents, they should keep considering whether to offer some kind of WiFi access. Telecommunications companies like Verizon are right to fear that such an effort might diminish their bottom lines, but maybe this is a necessary wake-up call to the idea that Internet access really should be cheaper. It's marvelous that approximately half the American population has easy Internet access, but there's another half, much of whom cannot afford the cost. Free or cheap wireless Internet access won't go all the way toward solving that problem, but it is a step in the right direction.

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