In defense of muni Wi-Fi

Esme Vos wrote a long post today taking apart an AP story that says Lompoc, CA, has wasted taxpayer money on a Wi-Fi networks no one wants.The AP article could have used some fact checking.

Esme Vos wrote a long post today taking apart an AP story that says Lompoc, CA, has wasted taxpayer money on a Wi-Fi networks no one wants.

The AP article could have used some fact checking. It states: Most communities, including Lompoc, paid for their projects. Elsewhere, private companies agreed to absorb costs for the chance to sell services or ads. I have no idea where they came to that conclusion.

It's the other way around: most cities that are building out these networks have sought, and are seeking private providers to pay for, build and run their networks.

Vos notes that many, many stories focus on "web surfing" as the point of building Wi-Fi networks, which makes the politicians that promote them sound decidedly starry-eyed, as if they are handing over the city coffers to the Wi-Fi companies in hopes that having something as mundane as a Wi-Fi will cause businesses and tourists to pour in, rejuvenating their decrepit downtowns.

What regular readers of this website know is that these networks are being deployed for many more uses: public safety (police, wireless camera surveillance and so on), wireless automated meter reading, mobile office use by inspectors, traffic management, parking control, voice over Wi-Fi, vehicle and asset tracking, and about a dozen other things you could think of if you spent five minutes with your eyes shut in a quiet room drowning out the noise from all of these “news” reports. Just read any of the RFPs I've posted on this website. Almost all of them want to use it for public Internet access and municipal applications.

In addition, it's a very rare city that forks over taxpayer money to build a net. "Almost all of the public tenders (RFPs and RFIs) for muni Wi-Fi deployments ask for a private provider to pay for, build, and run the network so it's hard to accuse the cities of wasting taxpayer money."

What's a real waste of taxpayer money is this: when the technology and the means are available for cities to drive down costs and become more efficient are right there and they refuse to use them. Cities could lower dramatically the cost of telecommunications by moving to VOIP or Voice over Wi-Fi (cancelling those expensive cellular subscriptions and using cheap VOIP phones, cancelling T-1 lines). They can make city workers more efficient by creating true mobile office conditions in the city. They can allow police officers to do their work better by letting them have access to broadband everywhere in the city. What about garbage cans that automatically send wireless signals when they are filled so the garbage collectors can come and empty them?

What's utterly wasteful is not taking advantage of technology that's around and, relative to licensed wireless, cheap to implement with a return on investment that comes in a very short period of time. A network that has so many multiple uses and is also open to all service providers -- that's worth spending money on.