Why Municipal WiFi is a Bad Idea

by Braden Kelley

I saw a headline today in USA Today about Municipal WiFi and how many cities are pulling the plug on planned Municipal WiFi setups. After thinking about it, I must say that I am glad because Municipal WiFi is not money well spent.

Let’s think about this for a moment. What is the goal of a Municipal WiFi system?

  • Is it for the city to be seen as on the leading edge to attract businesses to locate there?
  • Is it to help close the digital divide?
  • Is it to boost the egos of the city councilors or the mayor?

You don’t build it just because you can or because it sounds cool, but to solve a specific, addressable societal problem.

But what societal problem is it solving?
Is Internet access not available to everyone already?

All of these questions are particularly important because in most of these Municipal WiFi deals, the city has to invest money, money that could be spent on alternative projects. Chances are that those alternative projects would benefit the citizens more than having an advertising or fee-supported Municipal WiFi network available.

Here are some of the major reasons why cities should not spend money on Municipal WiFi networks:

  1. Everyone has access to at least dial-up Internet access in their home if they can afford the phone line and the monthly subscription.
  2. Most people have access to either DSL or Cable broadband in their homes
  3. Those people without access to DSL or Cable broadband often have access to Satellite or WiMax broadband (Clearwire)
  4. Most cities are already blanketed with wireless data networks already (EDGE, 3G, and possibly WiMax)
  5. Clearwire and Sprint have announced that they are going blanket something like 75% of population areas with WiMax networks
  6. Most public libraries and many other businesses (including coffee shops) offer free WiFi access
  7. Some cities are installing free WiFi access on buses and trains
  8. In the spirit of open source software, some organizations are building out free WiFi networks (shared access – you share with me and I’ll share with you)
  9. Some apartment and condominium dwellers are chipping in to purchase a broadband connection and sharing it over WiFi

As you can see, access is already available to nearly ever citizen, and residents of many cities already have access to mobile broadband. Of course people have to pay for access if they want it in their home or they want the convenience of mobile broadband, but it is available.

So if investing in Municipal WiFi is a bad idea, cities and other governments should instead think about alternative ways of addressing their goals. If their goal is to help close the digital divide or what is now becoming the digital broadband divide, then maybe they should:

  1. Require companies building or operating mobile broadband networks to offer a lower cost or free option for lower income families (possibly advertising support or maybe supported by similar programs run by utility companies)
  2. Extend the concept pursued in the telephone industry of a fee collected in all markets with broadband access to expand broadband access into markets without it (especially rural or less affluent areas)
  3. Partner with mobile broadband companies to leverage older mobile broadband networks as they are surpassed by newer technology, to provide free or lower cost alternatives for people of lesser means
  4. Work with broadband providers to implement broadband access point recycling programs, to offer free broadband access points to lower income customers (along with lower rates)
  5. Other innovative ideas of leveraging existing or imminent mobile broadband networks to make them available at a lower cost to people with lesser means

What are your thoughts? Are municipal WiFi networks an innovative approach to bridging the digital divide or an expensive way to gain incremental improvements in Internet availability?


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Braden KelleyBraden Kelley is a Social Business Architect and the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. Braden is also a popular innovation speaker and trainer, and advises companies on embedding innovation across the organization and how to attract and engage customers, partners, and employees.

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