Intellectual Property

Whatever Happened to Municipal Wifi?

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Who killed the great municipal wifi bandwagon of the early '00s, when every city worth its name was going to supply free (free, I tells ya!) or cheap wireless service for every resident? George Mason prof and Reason contributor Thomas W. Hazlett has answers in a provocative piece at Ars Technica. A snippet:

In 2005, Philadelphia's Chief Information Technology Officer, Dianah Neff, lectured: "Just as with the roads of old, if broadband bypasses you, you become a ghost town." The Philly CITO surely did not know that, by 2008, well over 100 million U.S. subscribers would be linked to the Internet via advanced data networks, wired and wireless, virtually every one of them supplied by unregulated private competitors, none via municipal wireless. So, yeah, Philadelphia. We get it.

Whole thing here.

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  1. WiGLE it, just a little bit.
    WiGLE (Wireless Geographic Logging Engine)is a nifty site showing you just where the open points are.

  2. WiFi never presented any of the rationales that the government usually uses to justify socializing some service. Unlike traditional broadcast technology, multiple WiFi bases can operate in the same zone without interference. There wasn’t a case in which the government had to step in other than the impulse to earn votes by giving stuff away for “free”.

  3. Public WiFi makes more sense than 95% of the state’s usual activities.

    It’s a bit like public lighting. I would prefer private roads to public ones, but since we have public roads I think it’s appropriate for there to be public street lighting to make those roads more safe, more pleasant to use, etc. Having public WiFi would make other public spaces more safe, more pleasant to use, etc. as well.

  4. That’s fine for the ultra-wealthy CEO’s making millions a year, but what about the other 97% of America living in grinding poverty? What about the homeless? Who provides their WiFi service?

  5. The joe imitator even used a very similar email address. But the hyperbole totally ruins it. The best parodies are closer to the mark.

  6. You’re right, thoreau. Too much outrage, not enough smugness. We’ll tone down the exclamation points next time.

  7. High speed wireless internet access declared an “fundamental right.” Wow.
    I’d like to take this a step further and declare several currently non-existent technologies as fundamental rights. Furthermore, not having access to fully-immersive virtual reality, unlimited space elevator trips, and frozen cloned bodies I can download my aging mind into is a violation of my rights.
    Wow.

  8. It shows a clearly high amount of obsession with me to be imitating me in threads I haven’t posted in yet.

  9. You get what you pay for. Here in Mountain View, California, Google has blanketed the entire town with free wifi. My apartment complex also offers free wifi. But in both cases it sucks. I still pay for a DSL connection.

    The free wifi is insecure, because it’s too much thinking for the general public to figure out how to connect to a WPA secured service. Ditto for the wifi connections in hotels. You also get poor overlap, high contention, and otherwise poor service.

  10. I refuse to believe “Joe” above is the real joe until he tells me which hand he holds it with.

  11. Private companies, given exclusive rights and specific social obligations, would hang those radios from street lights, linking local citizens to the Internet via high-speed connections. Presto! Government solves the digital divide.

    I think there’s something else going on here. These private companies have to realize that soon enough somebody is going to transmit child porn over the network. And then a headline-seeking politician or prosecutor is going to go after them. It’s not worth it for them. The government is eventually going to fuck them.

  12. The innovation was hailed as “world changing” by public interest advocates who trumpeted “WiFi for the people.” Venture capitalists dusted off their dot.com PowerPoint slides, showing the enormous opportunity. “Ultimately, it all boils down to disruptive economics,” touted (PDF) one VC at a 2005 trade show. “The history of technology shows that Cheap and Good Enough always wins over expensive and purpose-built.”

    Let’s not start suckin’ eachother’s dicks yet, gentlemen.

    There was this technology invented years ago that municipalities didn’t provide for free: phones. Nope, cities were sprinkled with them, but you had to put a dime in them to use them. Why anyone thought (well, why anyone with an MBA or Public Administration making six figures thought) this would be a jim-dandy idea, I have no idea.

    The other problem with large public wifi networks is it’s fucking hard to make work. Anyone making $48,000 a year who’s had to put one in an enterprise setting learns that lesson real… real fucking fast. It’s not cheap, and it’s not easy. And it requires support and massaging. WiFi, despite what the Doctor who’s demanding it in his office will tell you, is fantastically easy to DOS. That’s “Denial of Service” for those of you making six figures.

    And once you start putting public wifi spots out there, with broadcasting SIDs, every bored teenager with a year or more worth of haxxing skillz will start dropping your…ahem–“cheap, off-the-shelf radios” like bad transmissions in a demolition derby.

  13. Across the country, San Francisco officials actually boast about using local regulatory authority to deny even a single new cellular base station over the past several years.

    so much for the west being a free-wheeling high-tech zone. That fuckwad Greg Nickels is doing the exact. same. thing.

  14. I find it odd that the article doesn’t mention Minneapolis which completed its WiFi network about 6 months ago (although there is a gap or two thanks to some light poles not being strong enough for the repeaters and the normal political issues with our park board).

    So its basically a bitch fest with no real balance – not unusual for Reason to quote from…

  15. The FCC, seemingly impressed with the near-infinite hype-to-payoff ratio of muni wi-fail, is launching a federal version.

    This is genius! Hey I know, the post office could start providing free e-mail addresses to everyone in the country. You could walk to your local post office, sign on with a terminal, and print your emails out, then drive home and read them.

  16. I find it odd that the article doesn’t mention Minneapolis which completed its WiFi network about 6 months ago

    Not entirely complete.

    Billed as the shining example of a municipal Wi-Fi network that works, the Minneapolis network has run into a glitch, much like most of the nation’s other municipal Wi-Fi networks, many of which have folded.

    However, I will give you some points on the Twin-cities wifi:

    The city network is more than 80% deployed and is aiming at reaching 95% of Minneapolis’ citizens when the network is completed. The city is paying $1.3 million a year to support the service, and its city departments will use the network. Individual consumers have been signing up for the service at $19.95 a month.

    Pretty pricey stuff. They’re walking a thin line. They’re charging enough to probably actually support the network, but will they attract enough subscribers to actually make it cost-effective. My prediction is not only no, but hell no.

    But we’ll have to wait and see. Especially when you can go into a Starbucks or dozens of other places within the…you know, municipality and get free or lower cost wifi.

  17. So its basically a bitch fest with no real balance – not unusual for Reason to quote from…

    The existence of a muni wi-fi that actually works doesn’t mean the article “lacks balance”. Besides, its only been six months…..wait until they stop maintaining the network and see how wonderful it is.

    I’ve lived in and spent time in a number of cities that tried to make muni wi-fi work from small (Columbia, SC) to large (Portland, OR). I’ve never seen it work adequately, let alone well. The real fun begins when the network stops working or you can’t get a connection or whatever. Have fun finding someone to call and particularly finding someone to call who a) cares and b) can do anything about it.

    In any case, those of us here in Portland would like to thank the Twin Cities for the “Brandon Roy for Randy Foye” trade. Brandon is doing pretty well here in The Rose City and sends his regards 🙂

  18. Individual consumers have been signing up for the service at $19.95 a month.

    So a free municipal wi-fi service that people have to pay for? That is *brilliant*! That’s so much better than, say, paying T-Mobile $24.95 a month for access at thousands of locations all over the country! Let alone being able to access free wi-fi at countless coffee shops and other businesses….

    Kevin McHale must be a consultant on the Twin Cities Wi-Fi project–only a visionary that would trade a future Hall of Famer in Brandon Roy for a decently talented but unspectacular player in Foye could work up such a brilliant scheme…

  19. so much for the west being a free-wheeling high-tech zone. That fuckwad Greg Nickels is doing the exact. same. thing.

    What a genius! Of course it’s not like there’s any sort of major hi-tech industry in the Seattle area that would need good cellphone coverage 😉

  20. Joe | December 30, 2008, 7:38pm | #
    It shows a clearly high amount of obsession with me to be imitating me in threads I haven’t posted in yet.

    FWIW, wasn’t me. I don’t wreck threads until the train is already tilting and careening into a brick wall.

  21. “Whatever Happened to Municipal Wifi?”:

    Two words….. Comcast & Money

  22. What I want to know is:

    Just who in hell is responsible for connecting Philadephia to the net in the first place?

    Some things are better not done.

  23. my small town has downtown wifi but you have to pay for it so no one uses it. when I was lost in Philly I used private wifi that was open access to get where I needed to go. private open acess wifi has killed the need for welfare wifi.

  24. The Freeman had a little about municipal wifi back in October here:

    http://www.fee.org/pdf/the-freeman/0810FreemanTitch.pdf

  25. Yeah, speaking of Comcast, how can a private company provide shitty service, raise prices at four times the rate of inflation and post massive profits? Quick, to the Reason Cave, Robin!

    Now, eventually “the market” and the advance of technology will find a way to work around the last mile monopolists like Comcast and Verizon. In the mean time, a fair number of consumers are going to take a serious bend over, welcome to Turkish prison experience.

    The problem with muni wi-fi was two fold. Too much hype and a mediocre technology. If government wants to build something, build fiber optic cable to “the premises.” If the government could use the public road/water/sewer model, it would work. The problem? Someone from the government will screw it up. Instead of just providing bandwidth and leasing it to the lowest bidder, they’ll try to control it, thus crapping it up. Of course, the hate for Comcast, Verizon or the government is pretty close horse race on a given day.

  26. Unregulated??!! These networks will perish in flames, they will taste violent death!

  27. Try not to forget that municipal Wifi equals cheap, wireless cameras EVERYWHERE.

    At least, that’s how some company put it to a local city council outside of Pittsburgh. Cheap, easy-to-install cameras on every street corner.

    And yes, covering city council meetings are why my former journalism years are my former journalism years…

  28. i typically use the wide-assed open Apple network of some neighbor while at home. Ought to drop that cable connection eh?

    ATT covers my area and the places I travel pretty well too. Thinking about just getting that instead.

    the government really needs to get involved in this to mmake it safe.

  29. JOG,

    Yep, when corporations get involved things just go to hell. If only the city public utility workers would put together a network then it would work fine. Evil corporations keep messing up the world.

  30. when I was lost in Philly I used private wifi that was open access to get where I needed to go.

    Interesting. I use this public wifi whenever I’m lost.

    One of the few things the government did right. And it’s a true public resource. No one tells me “You can’t be in here, this is public property!”

  31. The main problem with free wi-fi: How do you know it’s really a municipal access point you’re connecting to?

  32. The whole *pervasive free wifi all over the city* thing is pretty stupid and not needed. There are too many open residential access points that can be freeloaded on.

    In Cambridge, MA, I used to see a guy, at 1am, sitting on the bench outside of a closed cafe that has free wifi, presumably using their signal.

    I do think there’s a case to be made for setting it up in and around public buildings, public transit stations, etc. It’d be nice to have a bit of wifi access at bus shelters or on buses themselves, but that’s probably asking too much.

  33. In my house, I have access to 4 wireless networks:

    1. Mine
    2. Another that is encrypted so I cant connect to it. Yet.
    3. One I havent tried yet.
    4. One named linksys. Yeah, its wide open.

  34. “Two Three words….. Comcast & Money Corruption, hubris and incompetence.”

    FTFY

  35. 2. Another that is encrypted so I cant connect to it. Yet.

    robc–My wireless is WPA2/AES with a 19 character passcode of lower and upper case letters and numbers. (I thought about using special characters too, but passed.) Have at it!

  36. Mayor John Street triumphantly announced that “the initiative will turn Philadelphia into the nation’s largest WiFi hotspot and help improve education, bridge the digital divide, enhance neighborhood development, and reduce the costs of government.”

    And free ponies for all Teh Children!

    Really. A brand-new, expensive government program, not paid for by any user fees whatsoever, is going to REDUCE the costs of government.

    Is math that hard that politicians can’t grasp it? Or do they grasp it, but think their constituents are too stupid to figure out that they’re lying?

  37. prolofeed,

    it is always about the three letter word, jobs.

  38. Good call on mentioning GPS. I get pretty tired of the knee-jerk libertarian reaction that government can’t do a fucking thing right. I’m really delighted that “free minds” is seen by some as “I hope you don’t mind when I use your free wifi.” Yeah, I know, people should make sure routers are password protected. And people should lock their doors… but if they don’t, do you have the right to walk into their house, sit down and watch TV? Hey, they’re already paying for the cable box, the heat and the sofa. If they are stupid, they deserve to have strangers sitting in the living room… right? Hey, and it’s not stealing music since someone somewhere originally bought the CD.

    Sure, government may fuck up “free” wifi… but they don’t do a bad job with water and sewer service. I don’t think building and maintaining a fiber optic network is exponentially more difficult. Personally, I have no objection to a public broadband pipe into my house where I can choose from any number of private ISPs.

  39. i like this JOyG fella too. if we had a more progressive society everybody could share heat.

  40. My wireless is WPA2/AES with a 19 character passcode of lower and upper case letters and numbers

    Im not counting on them having that good of a passcode. 🙂
    Then again, they named their network “incognito”, so maybe it is properly* protected.

    *not that any wifi is really secure. More than secure enough for most home and business purposes, though.

  41. I think you missed the turn at Sarcasm Lane.

  42. LOL, I’ll tell ya what happened, big corporations (ISPs) is what happened. Billions of dollars are at stake so it will never happen. Its the American way!

    Jess
    http://www.privacy-tools.at.tc

  43. jose, you are not good with analogies. if a person is broadcasting his wifi openly without a password into the public airwaves how can that be theft? many open wifi hotspots are intended for people other than the owner to use anyways. but even if they didn’t they should put a password on it or stop broadcasting their wifi signal to the public. it is not like going into someones house and watching their tv, its more like if a person put their TV in a window and someone was standing on the sidewalk watching it. gps isn’t that great, the galileo navigation service europe is getting will be more accurate than the gps civilians get.

  44. So robc, you’re going to brute force hack your neighbor’s wireless router? You have a lot of patience. Maybe you should try some social engineering instead. Or, you could not bother.

  45. They do that stuff in 30 seconds on TV. It’s not real?

  46. I’m under the impression that most people set up their wireless networks with WEP, not WPA. WEP is hackable. Coincidentally, I just helped my brother set up his wireless network and gave him the lecture about making sure that it was secure and recommending WPA2.

    I can spot 3-4 other networks from my house. I’m not interested in hacking them, of course, but I bet they are of the usual “not that secure” variety.

  47. if you google wpa crack you might find some interesting toys for the new year

  48. Security is about not being the low-hanging fruit more than about having near-perfect security, which is not practical.

  49. “This is genius! Hey I know, the post office could start providing free e-mail addresses to everyone in the country. You could walk to your local post office, sign on with a terminal, and print your emails out, then drive home and read them.”

    Actually I remember around 1998 or so the Post Office was actually talking about giving every American a Post office email address.

  50. Actually I remember around 1998 or so the Post Office was actually talking about giving every American a Post office email address.

    It’s a raging success here in France. 🙂

  51. Well, Hacha, I’ll try a better analogy. My kid leaves her bike on the sidewalk… a public sidewalk. I guess it’s not really “stealing” if some other kid takes it. People who set up a little wireless router in a home are not generally doing so to provide the neighbors and drive bys with free Internet access. And speaking of crappy analogies, looking onto someone’s property from a public way is a little different than trespassing onto an unsecured wireless access to consume broadband access someone else is paying for.

    And yeah, the European GPS is going to be really sweet since I’d like to know exactly how many centimeters before my turn onto Sarcasm Lane.

  52. Personally, I have no objection to a public broadband pipe into my house where I can choose from any number of private ISPs.

    How many different water and sewer companies do you have to choose from?

    High-speed internet as a basic right, comparable to water and electricity? Interesting thesis.

    Public pipe with private ISPs, eh? Like Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL? Good times, good times…

  53. Right on, Jose. Some libertarians throw the idea of private property to the four winds when that property is not physical and easy to steal anonymously.

    if a person is broadcasting his wifi openly without a password into the public airwaves how can that be theft? many open wifi hotspots are intended for people other than the owner to use anyways.

    There are also many buildings that are open to the public even though the door is closed. That doesn’t mean you should assume that EVERY building is open to the public unless the door is locked. Likewise, you should assume any wireless network is not supposed to be public unless you know that it is public.

  54. Coercive/Overpriced municipal wifis suck, but in my area there is a voluntary, free, communitarian wifi service:

    http://cuwireless.net/

    When you install a node, you can either be a host if you already have internet, or you can act as a repeater to the existing network. I think this adds resiliency, lowers cost, and may even be good in a disaster scenario.

    I’d throw up a node myself, but I rent :-/

  55. Sorry, JW, but there were many great, small local ISPs where real live local people answered the telephone when you called to ask them a question. Then the federal government decided to bend to the baby bells and end any common carrier obligation or nondiscriminatory transport requirements. As such, independent ISPs got screwed… including a few I really miss.

    By the way, water and sewer service are not a “right.” It’s a pay-to-play gig. Stop paying your water or sewer bills and drop the local utility a little note that they need to respect your “right.” Public broadband wouldn’t be terribly different than public roads… except that it would be far easier to allocate bandwidth than travel lanes. I’m still waiting to meet the libertarian who won’t use public streets or sidewalks as a matter of principle.

    Frankly, as much as I distrust and dislike government… I distrust and dislike Comcast and Verizon more. Buying and selling influence at the state and federal levels, they coopt regulators, stifle competition, screw customers and I don’t even get a chance to cast a symbolic vote in protest.

    And finally, stealing because it’s inconvenient and because a property owner is careless is still stealing.

  56. By the way, water and sewer service are not a “right.” It’s a pay-to-play gig. Stop paying your water or sewer bills and drop the local utility a little note that they need to respect your “right.”

    I’m not saying that they are, but that’s always the justification used by the statists to mandate a utility’s existance, somthing akin to neccessary for life. Throwing internet access on that same log pile doesn’t pass the smell test matter how you look at it. Monpolies suck no matter who they are and how well-intentioned.

    Don’t create communications monopolies in the first place and you’ll see no need for common carrier provisions.

    Frankly, as much as I distrust and dislike government… I distrust and dislike Comcast and Verizon more. Buying and selling influence at the state and federal levels, they coopt regulators, stifle competition, screw customers and I don’t even get a chance to cast a symbolic vote in protest.

    Then you should be agitating in favor of removing franchise agreements to allow actual, real competition, not for more free ponies.

    Hopefully, WiMax will finally get its shit together and mitigate the “last mile” argument.

  57. you still don’t get it. radio waves are not physical. when you broadcast into the airwaves you are putting your network into the public space. you don’t need a license to send or receive in that part of the bandwidth. you don’t own the airwaves so if you have a problem with it change your fucking setting. if you want privacy stick to physical connections. and there are a LOT of people who have wifi hotspots free, where it is encouraged to be used without charge.

  58. live inside a faraday cage if you don’t like people picking up your electromagnetic radiation leaks.

  59. Minneapolis has it. Works great!

  60. Minneapolis has it. Works great!

    For $19.95 a month, it better work fucking flawlessly.

  61. “””Actually I remember around 1998 or so the Post Office was actually talking about giving every American a Post office email address.”””

    I wouldn’t be surprised if your home address has an assigned IP number one day.

    Do we really want government WiFi? That means they get to keep the records of who does what on their network. No warrant or judical review necessary, of course the government wants to be your ISP.

  62. Minneapolis WiFi?

    Working downtown I can’t get a piddle of the public signal from the window of any building. And even my uptown-living socialist co-workers (the neighborhood is a high-density hotbed of those type) who were stoked about its offering still stick to Qwest, Comcast, or AT&T 3G in lieu of the city’s 19.95 WiFi expense and poor connectivity.

  63. jose,

    right on paco! we need to stick it to the man and grab all the free wifi we can! if america would only get more progressive everybody could share wifi and heat.

  64. Two years ago, I remember the city of Tucson spending more than a million dollars to determine the feasibility of a wi-fi network covering the entire city. Considering the low density and geography of Tucson, this was a totally absurd plan. I would not be shocked if they abandoned it as well after spending a few more million on consultants.

  65. Umm, Tucson deployed their system. They are primarily using it for ambulances and public safety although I know they were going to expand it’s functionality. It was never designed for municipal WiFi.

    What’s really funny is that just outside Tucson, there is a 3 square mile area that has it’s own WiFi/PTMP system that serves over 220 users in a area of about 3-4 square miles that cost them about 1/10 the cost of the Tucson system. Their users get about 2.5Mbps currently with sub 5ms latency rates internally. The cost of deploying that system is about $6000 per square mile with 180Mbps of internal bandwidth with about 5% of loss per hop versus the 50% loss associated with most lower end systems.

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