It seemed like a good idea at the time

Last week, I lamented the growing tendency to slam perfectly valid technologies as unsuitable for new uses, just because they prove to be unsuited for applications for which they are inherently unsuited.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

Last week, I lamented the growing tendency to slam perfectly valid technologies as unsuitable for new uses, just because they prove to be unsuited for applications for which they are inherently unsuited.

Sorry if that last sentence was confusing, but it's nothing compared to my attempts to understand why local governments around the world actually believed they would be able to deliver broad Wi-Fi services that would deliver free Internet access for all.

As anybody who's actually had to do it knows, the only way to get truly free Internet access when you need it is to go use a computer at the local public library, sneak into your nearest school and sit at a teacher's desk while she's on her lunch break, or park in front of a neighbour's house and log into their Wi-Fi network while pretending you've pulled over to make a very, very long mobile phone call.

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Barring that, someone will always have to pay for Internet services — and, last week, the NSW government finally gave in to reality by conceding that the companies responding to its free Wi-Fi tender couldn't actually figure out how to deliver what it was asking for.

Sydney isn't the first city to give up on visions of a pervasively, wirelessly connected CBD, first floated around 18 months ago. At that time, I was living in Singapore, where the nascent Wireless@SG service promised just that (here's a map of coverage areas from late 2006).

In what may be the shortest half-life for a government technology idea ever, 2007 saw San Francisco sign a contract with EarthLink in January, but found itself holding the bag after the ISP reneged on the deal just seven months later. Similar withdrawals from Chicago, Virginia and other regions forced one local government after another to concede defeat.

Singapore's model, which continues to this date and has been held up as something to emulate by many advocates of free Wi-Fi, gives a 512Kbps connection for free and sells subscribers faster access. This is a sticking point right there, since many Australian broadband services don't get over 512Kbps anyway — so there wasn't much headroom to offer subscribers.

The fact that NSW's government persisted as long as it did — a whole year and a half — reflects the desperate hope of our politicians to actually deliver something they promised. Yet the plans the government had for Wi-Fi were little more than fantasy — particularly given the sorry state of backhaul carriage pricing in Australia, which is certainly far from free and must be one of many reasons none of the 13 proposals was viable.

More interesting, however, is one of the reasons NSW Minister for Commerce Eric Roozendaal was quoted as giving for the cancellation: "The popularity of Blackberrys and other similar handheld devices is already challenging the use of Wi-Fi for portable computers".

In other words, everybody who needs to get online, is already getting online through other means, so the whole idea of free public wireless access is moot. No more. It has ceased to be. It is an ex-strategy.

This may be the most damaging thing a 'berry has done to popular culture since Socrates.

Yet the biggest lesson from this whole effort is not just that TANSTAFWF. The failure of the free Wi-Fi idea has confirmed that people have accepted the idea that Internet access is married to a particular access device — and such devices must invariably be paid for. This model is working fine and well in the mobile market, where millions of customers are happy to pay for Blackberrys or iPhones on the assumption that they will always be connected to something.

What that "something" is, doesn't matter until it becomes unavailable, which is where HSDPA networks really have a leg up on Wi-Fi. But people don't mind paying for data services that they know will be available when they need them — this is, by the way, why Telstra is still in business and subscribers regularly flee Dodo Internet by the trainload.

Wi-Fi was never going to be a realistic way of blanketing a large area with Internet coverage; it was simply chosen because, at the time, it seemed like the most easily accessible, widely relevant form of wireless communication. These days, we know that WiMax is far better for that sort of thing — and that HSDPA services, because they are actually available and usable, are the thing that will put a death knell into it

This is not to say that Wi-Fi itself is useless, just that — no matter how much it impresses politicians — it is best restricted to closed environments such as homes, schools, hotels or warehouses where the gear and backhaul are fully costed and paid for.

If you're looking for free Internet access, you're going to have to continue to rely on the kindness of strangers — those who have volunteered to share their bandwidth through mesh network schemes like Meraki and FON, or those kind neighbours who think WPA is just a Melbourne rockband.

Editor's note: I will send a CNET Networks backpack to the first person who correctly tells me what "TANSTAFWF" means.

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