Hartford abandons citywide Wi-Fi dreams

Hartford, Connecticut has abandoned its plan to cover the city with wireless broadband service. Instead, it will focus on maintaining the existing network which is available in the Blue Hills neighborhood and certain parts of downtown. Hartford had embarked on a $5.8 million plan to unwire the city, primarily to bring inexpensive or free Internet access to low-income residents. But lack of demand from residents, coupled with rising costs, have forced the city to rethink the entire project.

Several points raised in this Hartford Business Journal article made me think about similar “do-good” projects in other places:

(1) The city says that the residents are using their Internet connections for less ambitious purposes than job hunting (i.e. they’re using it for entertainment). Why is this surprising to the mayor and why does he think that people will use the network to do only boring things?

A friend of mine who help set up wireless networks in Central America for a non-profit organization observed that young people in the villages were using it, not for educational purposes, but for IM’ing kids in other Spanish-speaking countries and for viewing porn. In addition, as those kids saw that life in the big cities was far more exciting than in their villages, they wanted to leave.

(2) Hartford purchased “900 low-cost Internet-ready computers to sell to Blue Hills residents, but only about 400 sold at $150 each. The rest were donated to schools.”

Why weren’t the low-income residents interested in buying $150 computers for themselves and their children? Given the rising cost of food and petrol, perhaps these people did not even have $150 to spare. Or maybe they prefer to spend it on things they consider more important, things that upper-middle class people don’t like to hear low-income people buying (especially with upper-middle class people’s tax money): lottery tickets, cigarettes, liquor, cable TV service.

There’s a limit to which one can mould society and people’s behavior. You may want them to put Internet access and computers on the top of their wish list for their children, but they have other plans.

(3) Blue Hills residents had trouble getting access to the network when leaves appeared on trees so the city had to install more wireless nodes. Anyone who has studied basic physics (wave mechanics) would have foreseen this. Why is it that in so many city networks, the network providers – people who supposedly have some expertise in wireless –  always act surprised by the most rudimentary laws of physics that operate on this planet?

(4) Finally, Hartford plans to charge for the service because they can’t keep giving away access for free. Yet, they admit that they cannot charge for access and are astonished that demand for Wi-Fi access has been so tepid.

Here’s what another friend told me a few days ago about wired broadband in the United States. He says the DSL and cable Internet providers are very disappointed with the limited demand for broadband service — not in places like San Francisco and Silicon Valley where many tech people live, but in average communities across the US. People just aren’t that interested in broadband service and all that it can bring. They just don’t care. I find this hard to believe and I don’t have statistics to show but the providers say that if demand were much higher, they would invest more in their networks, provide higher speeds, and lower prices.

Previous articles about Hartford:

Hartford, Connecticut launches wireless broadband pilot program