Our guest commentary of the week comes from James Jones, a consultant in San Francisco, who argues that there are many reasons for cities to explore setting up municipally-owned, not-for-profit public networks and to provide free Internet access.
San Francisco’s budget analyst estimates that a ubiquitous San Francisco Wi-Fi network could be built and operated for one year for $6-$10 million. Ongoing maintenance and operations might cost $2 million a year, and equipment/technology replacement might add another $1.5 million annually. That’s less than $30 per household one time ($10,000,000/360,000 households) and less than $10 per year per household for ongoing operations, maintenance and technology upgrades ‚Äö?Ñ?¨ for an outdoor solution that could equally serve all citizens and guests all year much better than dial-up services! That’s an incredibly cheap and efficient use of public Wi-Fi spectrum, and it overestimates the costs and does not count the benefits of a truly public network.
A serious flaw in many cities’ decision-making process is they assume a subscription model is the only valuable and viable one. However, it’s not necessarily always true the best way to finance a network is to have individual subscribers buy service, preferably with somebody getting a shot at getting rich on the deal as a traditional service provider. (Even the Budget Analyst’s report above assumes a subscription services model, thereby overestimating the costs for a truly public network.)
A subscription service model adds significant costs to an overall solution from the perspective of society. It requires the creating and managing systems and organizations to handle customer relationships. It costs a lot of money to install and maintain billing and collections, track and enforce service level agreements (SLAs), market and sell services, manage and provide benefits for all the additional personnel required for these functions.
Multiple levels of service and paid subscription services degrade network performance. Technical solutions have to be layered onto the network to segment traffic, rate limit users according to their paid tier of service, monitor SLA performance. A wholesale model requires staff to negotiate and manage wholesale customer relationships, interconnections with wholesale customer service provider networks, systems integration between the network provider and its wholesale customers, wholesale billing, collections, accounting, audit, SLA enforcement.
All of those additional elements add unnecessary complexity and cost to the overall network and much of the additional money taken from subscribers for those purposes goes elsewhere, to corporate operations, staff and investors elsewhere, rather than staying in a municipality for the benefit of the local economy. From the perspective of society, profit is also an unnecessary expense with a subscription-services solution, and that money also typically leaves and does not benefit the local economy.
Finally, subscription service models risk business failure and closure, by not achieving required levels of paid subscriptions to satisfy investors and managers, and they create conflicts between public service and profit maximization goals.
Free is free! Let’s just put Wi-Fi networks out there as an amenity, a public service to citizens and guests on a best efforts basis, without rate limiting anybody. Let users share bandwidth on the network at any given time. If there are few users of the network in a given location, a user will get better performance than with a rate-limited subscription service. If there are lots of users in a given location, performance is shared between those users. With no performance guarantees and appropriate communications and setting of expectations, that’s OK. It makes the network simpler and less expensive.
There are individual citizens in most communities who could just write checks for a muni Wi-Fi network and its operations. Corporate citizens or government certainly could. Give citizens or philanthropists an opportunity to say whether they are willing to pay for the solution, via general funds, property assessments, bond financing, gifts or grants. A truly ubiquitous and equitable solution would cost less than 1% of a typical municipal budget. Offer the service free as an amenity to all citizens and guests as a digital inclusion strategy. The stimulus to the economy should more than make up for the costs. A city would be a more appealing tourist, convention and business location, attracting new hotel, convention and service revenue. Telecommuting and mobile work would be enabled, reducing traffic and traffic related expenses and inefficiencies, benefiting the economy.
An appropriate model for such a free network is the public library, or public TV or radio. Libraries give citizens the ability to access books, magazines and information, even if they cannot afford to purchase them individually. They allow users to share costs, rather than inefficiently each having to purchase everything and then leaving those assets dormant or discarded after they’ve been used, rather than reusing them. Libraries don’t put bookstores out of business any more than a free Wi-Fi network would put commercial network service providers out of business. The message to industry is “We welcome you to come provide advanced communications services in our city. However, to be commercially successful, the services should be better than what our citizens already get for free.”
As a true public-interest, public network, a city would not have to collect, disseminate, sell or use any personally identifiable data about any individual network user for any purpose, unless required by law. There should be at least one network alternative in a city that adamantly supports a user’s right to privacy. A public, not-for-profit network operator would have no perverse motivations to collect and sell such information for profit or to conceal user data collection and dissemination practices from the public.
Similarly, everyone should have at least one network alternative that is not subject to abuse by advertisement. Many citizens would simply prefer not to have to be exposed to unwanted ads. Some citizens and guests view advertisement as a form of pollution, not unlike garbage strewn on streets. Advertisement is offensive to some and is avoidable. A Wi-Fi network option is cheap. Why pervert it? A public network should remain free of profit motivated ads, just like our libraries and schools.
The municipal wireless movement has an opportunity to significantly raise the bar for electronic communications solutions. With a true public network, modeled after public libraries, public television or radio, we can provide everyone, everywhere in a municipality, at all times, network connectivity many times better than dial-up, at a fraction of the cost of dial-up, that adds no new abuse of personal information or intrusive ads. We can radically reduce digital divides and equitably improve economic opportunity for all. We can reduce automobile traffic and improve the delivery of public services. All in the spirit this country was founded on ‚Äö?Ñ?¨ efficient, equal respect and opportunity for all.
When we can do that for everyone for less than $25 one time and $10 a year each, why would we settle for anything less?
By James Jones
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