Free and "utility" are two different things

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson is calling for Wi-fi as a public utility. That's a great idea, but it isn't necessarily free.

"There's the free and ubiquitious approach, which I favor, and then there's the greedy bastards approach which apparently Boston's Logan Airport favors," venture capitalist Fred Wilson writes of another frustrating visit to the airport. "I have no issue with Logan's interest in offering a paid wifi offering in its terminals, but if some smart visionary company wants to offer a free alternative, they should be allowed to do that."

Public Wi-fi is a great and grand vision that's becoming reality in many places, including London, Manchester and Birmingham, U.K.  Folks in Austin, Texas, have launched a community network and there's one near me, in Seattle. When the public bands together to create a network, the participants share their connectivity for free. It's an important form of community-through-contribution that should be offered free. It's the purest form of a publicly created utility, rather like how growing cities cooperate to get clean water to all citizens.

I agree that there should be unlimited access to the airport for wireless carriers, simply because the airport is public property. If the airport chooses to create a monopoly by selling exclusive rights to a single provider, that's a political problem that travelers and locals need to organize to resolve. But the principle on which the access is offered should be simple: It should serve the user rather than the carrier or the airport's finances, because the airport is already a public utility and a monopoly at that.

Wilson's suggestion that an entrepreneurial company might offer access for free in the airport is somewhat problematic, in my estimation. Nothing is free for a company, so let's not try to dress up other forms of quid pro quo as "free."

If the users must accept ads in their browser to get the wireless access, that's not "free," rather it is an exchange of attention for access. If the user's surfing habits are going to be logged, so that offers can be made when they appear on the airport network, they should be told the access isn't "free." ("Traveling internationally? Don't forget to stop at Duty Free to pick up your [here, the offer is based on what the user reads in the airport, such as...] Sharper Image hair dryer and a bottle of scotch").

The crappy service offered by a monopoly carrier would have to get better in order to be a viable alternative to the no-fee competitors, and that's only good for the customer. 

Yes, we need competition and it shouldn't be the airport's sole discretion to decide what travelers get to use to connect to the Net. At the same time, let's be clear that a public utility isn't always free. 


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