Brad Stone and Public Wi-Fi

Over at Newsweek, Brad Stone makes plenty of good points about the public Wi-Fi craze.

First off, a lot of these public wi-fi networks basically suck at delivering the internet.

Last year, St. Cloud, Fla., seemed poised to become an unlikely high-tech beacon. The small suburb of Orlando (population: 28,000) paid $2.6 million to build a wireless network that would blanket its 15 square miles in free, fast Internet access. The network was finally completed in March, but now, St. Cloud is becoming better known for the risks and challenges associated with rushing ahead into the wireless frontier. Complaints about poor connectivity and a few negative press reports have drowned out much of the positive feedback. And last month, city council members were surprised to learn that equipment supplier Hewlett-Packard needed another $500,000 to finish the job. “The infrastructure is there and it’s a good idea, but the unfortunate part is that there isn’t a wide enough area of coverage yet,” says Julio Garcia, owner of Tech Geeks, a local computer firm.

Second off, they seem to be particularly invasive of privacy in certain instances.

The biggest question is how much these networks will cost to build””and who will pay for them. In a few cities, like St. Cloud, taxpayers are footing the bill. But most cities are giving private companies an exclusive contract, and even making some money by leasing space on light poles and traffic signs for the antennas that spread the wireless signal. Earthlink, which is also building networks for Anaheim, Calif., and New Orleans, plans to charge residents about $20 a month for access. That compares favorably to broadband Internet connections from the local cable or telephone service provider, which can cost more than $50 a month.

Other cities, like San Francisco, Annapolis, Md., and Tempe, Ariz., want to offer residents some level of free access; those services will mostly likely have extra ads to make up the cost. That has privacy advocates worried, and in many cities raising objections that are slowing down the approval process. According to the plan in San Francisco, for example, users of the city’s basic free service (others can pay for faster speeds) will be forced to use Google search and see Web ads targeted to their location. “Our bottom line is that people must not be forced to pay for it with their privacy,” says Nicole Ozer, technology director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which has raised concerns about the project.

As I mentioned in my other post, when the government has set up a network for the public good, they can only make things worse by privatizing it without any regulations to protect the public good it was set out to do. However, this whole argument over lesser evils can be short-circuited by not building the damn thing in the first place. Or, at least, by not using government funds to do so. We are not yet at the stage where we have to make a choice between letting the government fuck us up with public wi-fi or letting private corporations in bed with government fuck us up with public wi-fi. Let’s not get to that stage, kids.

If we’re going to expect the government to do anything about it, something like this wouldn’t be too horrible-it would preserve the choice inherent in the market, and even expand it a bit.

  1. SF TechConnect WiFi Franchise: City hearing Monday 6/12 10am PST – watch live online too

    How will your privacy be protected?
    Can we get more than 300k speed (Mtn Vw gets 1000k)
    Digital Inclusion funding (philly got 10,000 computers)
    How well will it work indoors (SF asked for 90% indoor coverage)
    Will there be significant Pilots before the contract is signed?

    You can also watch online live streaming at SFGTV


  2. Nice article. Until I get to your last sentence.

    What in the hell is wrong with you? “Too horrible”? It’s easy to engage in relativism when we are talking about something that right now is a lot more benign than say the war in Iraq. But then, apply the logic that there is a legitimate government interest in anything and it should be no surprise that 99.9999999999+% of the time it’s going to become a debacle that rewards one group to the detriment of another.

    But, in typical Stuart Richards antitarian logic, his inconsistent idea of “Better®” government is superior to a simple refutation of government involvement at all. Whats worse is that the most vulnerable members of society pay for this and see NONE of the benefits as usual. They are the victims. When are you going to learn that ALL government intervention stifles inherent choice in the marketplace? Maybe they could find a way to force user’s start pages to info on using rubbers to prevent AIDS, wouldn’t that great, Stuart?

  3. God I love you David.

    You know, I’m not actually saying that that’s the ideal. I’m just kicking ideas around that realistically promote at least some liberty for everyone to consider.