It was the best of municipal Wi-Fi, it was the worst of municipal Wi-Fi. I refer of course to last week, when two cities I have called home at various points in my life made big announcements about unwiring their Internet access.
In the City by the Bay, proposals came in from 26 different Wi-Fi luminaries (some more luminous than others), touting their plans to provide free or extremely low-cost wireless access throughout the city. Of course, to listen to the buzz, you'd think only one company had put in a proposal because everyone seems to be stuck on the prospect of getting 300Kbps of free bandwidth branded with those cute multicolored letters in the Google logo. But there are much more heavyweight names on the list, including big-name ISP EarthLink; cellular companies Ericsson, Cingular, and Motorola; and upstart San Francisco wireless maven Feeva.
Meanwhile, on the other coast, at the end of a yearlong campaign to create a wireless network covering all 135 square miles of the greater Philadelphia area, the City of Brotherly Love has finally awarded the contract for creating and maintaining the network. The winning bidder? EarthLink. The cost of the service? Twenty bucks a month to most subscribers.
Bay city rollers
The great thing about San Francisco is that all it takes is a cause, and suddenly, you have a movement. And the cause du jour seems to stem from a mistrust of Google. I've already said quite enough about the prospect of Google providing wireless Internet access. I think it's a mistake from a business and branding perspective. Everyone else seems to think it's a mistake for a completely different reason: data privacy.
The great thing about San Francisco is that all it takes is a cause, and suddenly, you have a movement. And the cause du jour seems to stem from a mistrust of Google.
Of course, when anybody attempts to supply an expensive service across an entire city and not charge for it, one does wonder where the money will come from to pay for it. With soaring housing prices, San Francisco taxpayers have been feeling the pinch, and they're understandably unwilling to subsidize everybody else's Internet access. That's why Mayor Gavin Newsom has been insisting that this project will cost the city either nothing or very little. So who's going to pay for a free service over the long term? Ask the people who publish the Bay Guardian and the SF Weekly: If you're going to give it away, you get advertisers to cover your costs. This has been working for free newspapers for decades, but their editorial pages target a distinct demographic that advertisers like. People who use the Internet are a lot more diverse than fans of a particular newspaper. So I suspect that targeted local advertising will become a factor in all these plans sooner or later.
Here's how it could work. If you search for restaurants or movies from the special home page that almost certainly will pop up when you hook up to one of these services, you'll almost certainly get results in a five-block radius. Some may describe this as dodgy from a privacy standpoint; others may consider it a great convenience. Still others may project a future where consumers become so lazy from a lack of basic research skills that they'll buy anything from anybody if they see it advertised on a Web page.
But that's a subtle way to market to people, and subtlety seldom works in the world of advertising. Before long, you may find the tops of the Web pages you view blazoned with a local bar's banner advertising, touting its wing special tonight. The creep toward blatant advertising may be subtle at first, but like PBS's "This program has been brought to you by..." announcements, they will soon turn into a litany of logos and marketing taglines that goes on forever. And you won't be able to complain about your screen real estate, because, hey, you're not paying for the service. And the city won't listen to your complaints because, hey, it's not going to raise taxes to support this network. That's how elections are lost.
Love thy neighbor
Which brings us to other ways to cover the costs of municipal Wi-Fi projects and takes us 3,000 miles east. Wireless Philadelphia and its network supplier EarthLink have hammered out a subscription model that is tiered to handle the low-income areas in the city. As the network rolls out, most subscribers will pay $20 a month for the wireless service, but low-income families will get a 50 percent subsidy on their access. That takes the price right down into NetZero country, which is a pretty good deal for broadband wireless (though less good, presumably, for NetZero).
And it's not just good for low-income subscribers and EarthLink. The City of Brotherly Love is interested in sharing the love among service providers. Sure, if you happen to be an EarthLink subscriber, you'll probably get a good deal on EarthLink's wireless service in Philly. But the plan is for those Wi-Fi access points on telephone poles to play host to many different subscription services. Assuming that this extends to T-Mobile subscribers, this should be liberating for people looking for a break from Starbucks' overroasted coffees and syrupy dessert drinks, and who fancy replying to their e-mail over cheesesteak, scrapple, and Yuengling somewhere a bit less tony. But we'll see how roaming and a shared access plan actually work out in the long run.
Of course, even though EarthLink is fronting the cash for the network hardware and setup, Wireless Philadelphia, the nonprofit organization that the city set up to administer the project, will be taking money out of the city coffers for administrative costs.
Of course, even though EarthLink is fronting the cash for the network hardware and setup, Wireless Philadelphia, the nonprofit organization that the city set up to administer the project, will be taking money out of the city coffers for administrative costs. And that's bound to tick off some people, such as Philly's Councilman Rizzo, who told News.com, "When we hear that a municipal network will cost the city of Philadelphia $11 million, it's important for our taxpayers to know that we are speaking about the most rudimentary, basic network."
But even if costs do overrun (and they probably will...this is a municipal project after all), the cost will be peanuts next to, say, that of a sports stadium. Philly spent $50 million in 1971 dollars on its baseball-and-football venue Veterans Stadium and demolished it 30 years later to build two separate stadiums in the same neighborhood. The city picked up the tab for more than half of the Phillies' new home, spending $174 million of public money on a place that eventually became Citizens Bank Park. (That was a little coup that earned the Phillies, but not Philly itself, $95 million in naming rights.) True, some of that money was spent on locally produced goods (the Citizens Bank Stadium sign, for example, came from Lansdale, a town right on the borders of Philly). And it's unlikely that much of the technology being used for EarthLink's proposed wireless coverage will be locally produced. But I think that creating a low-cost Internet access network across the entire city may be a far, far better thing to do. And it's a dickens of a good example for cities contemplating their own municipal Wi-Fi plans.
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