While, in principle, I agree with my colleague, Chris Dawson (Why municipal Wi-Fi is an educational expense), the problems with this approach are huge -- and have nothing whatsoever to do with education.
In the 1930's the rationale for providing ubiquitous radio, electrical, telephone, and water resources to everyone was motivated by the need to put people to work in a time of deep economic depression and political upheaval throughout the world. These projects also built up a nationwide infrastructure serving the strategic interests of the United States. Still these services were not free -- and they were fully regulated. They became affordable for all only because their broad availability eventually turned them into commodities.
Over the last twenty-plus years (since the consent decree breaking up AT&T) the trend toward deregulation has led to broad consumer choice, and to the commoditization of many products and services.
None of the authors of the Communications Act of 1934 could have dreamed of the services possible today because they had the foresight to put the airwaves into the public domain.
Today, there is Wi-Fi, Wi-MAX (promised but not yet delivered), cellular data service, dial-up, DSL, cable broadband, power-line broadband (promised but not yet delivered), and Internet access via satellite and this list doesn't begin to address the underlying technologies which remain beyond the reach of many but provide the backbone of these consumer services.
Introducing municipal Wi-Fi as a new utility -- or as a free service to all (as suggested by Chris's piece) -- may be attractive but can it be successful? A number of such municipal projects have already failed and others are in trouble for a variety of reasons. Some technical. Some political. Some economical.
Do we really want the government to provide (and hence control) such a ubiquitous service to the detriment of competition? Do we even want a municipality to align itself with a single company (say, the local telephone company) if it means that the local cable company, or cellular provider, cannot compete effectively? After all, free Internet access could put the local cable provider, the local wired telephone provider, and the local cellular providers all in a position of being unable to compete and provide similar but often clearly superior solutions. (For instance, both cellular data services and DSL offer a level of security simply unavailable from Wi-Fi or broadband.)
Free municipal Wi-Fi is decidedly different than what we commonly find in a public library, where free-but-limited access to the Internet is treated the same as free-but-limited access to books (as well as a variety of multimedia materials). Where patrons must make the effort to come to the library and "check out" materials for their use -- and return them so that others may share those resources. Municipal Wi-Fi must, by its very nature, offer a reliable unlimited service or its value is dramatically diminished. A municipal utility (especially if it is free) runs the risk of creating a permanent underclass of those who cannot afford superior services while unwittingly making it impossible for competing services to commoditize their offerings, making these superior services available to more consumers.
Should school districts adopt the same model as libraries for providing patron access to this most valuable resource? Yes, of course they should. And Chris is correct, that there is a right way to do it as well as a wrong way -- and left to their own meager resources, there will be no consistent solution from school to school. Providing Internet access to all students from all schools within a school district should be the goal of every school district -- not to the municipality within which that district resides.