March 30, 2005

Op-Ed: No Love for Wi-Fi

Today, the Austin American-Statesman published an op-ed by Philadelphia councilmember Frank Rizzo. You might recall that the city of brotherly love has some high profile plans for community Internet. Mr. Rizzo has been a vocal critic of those plans. Now, he's weighing in on community Internet in Texas, and he doesn't much like it here either.

There are many puzzling things about this column. For instance, Mr. Rizzo says:

In Austin and elsewhere, city administrators are considering a massive, open-ended public works project: municipally owned and subsidized wireless (Wi-Fi) networks.

This came as quite a shock to me. I sit on the Austin Telecommunications Commission, where I hear regularly from city staff and officials regarding communication policy. I've heard many discussions about how we can work with industry and community groups to provide increased network availability. I've never heard anybody propose a public works project—massive or otherwise.

Here is another puzzling comment:

But before embarking on this seemingly visionary agenda, local governments should take a closer look at municipal forays into the telecom world. [...] For if they do, they might find that history littered with cost overruns, debt and rapidly outdated systems.

What's puzzling is that the bold assertion is not backed up by a single example.

The big phone companies first advanced this "many failures" claim. When those claims have been researched, however, they have been found to be false. So I'm curious if Mr. Rizzo has new information or if this is based on already-discredited claims.

I disagree with nearly every argument Mr. Rizzo offers, but I agree with his conclusion that local governments need to do an honest assessment before deploying municipal broadband. That's the problem with HB 789. It outlaws public wireless and takes it out of the hands of local municipalities, rather than letting the citizens decide what works best for their community.

Read the entire article. (registration required)

Posted by chip at March 30, 2005 04:06 PM

Having fled the multimedia backwater of Philadelphia in the early '90's to the technology oasis of Austin, I'm reminded why I left after reading Frank Rizzo, (Jr.'s) op-ed piece on why public wi-fi is a bad idea.

The gist of his argument is: "public works are always bad, private works are always good. We can't have public wi-fi because it will cost too much for security." This is like saying we can't have public highways because it will cost too much to police them...if we build a road, someone may commit a crime on it, therefore, we shouldn't build the road. Following his logic, every road in Texas would be a private toll road...except of course going into our poorest neighborhoods...I'm sure in that case, people like Rizzo would argue those should be public.

But the debate in the Texas legislature isn't whether a local government should fund wi-fi, the debate is wether or not business should be able to offer free wi-fi as a service to their customers. Why would we outlaw a business giving a benefit to their customers?

Posted by: Joel Greenberg at March 31, 2005 09:38 AM

I read this opinion piece yesterday. It frames the issue incorrectly by suggesting that Austin is embarking on a blanket coverage of free wi-fi. So far as I know, it's not. So he creates this monster of blanket wi-fi coverage and how expensive it is to implement it, which suggests that the pending legislation (HB 789) will help keep cities from making the same mistake Philly did. The real issue is that HB 789 seeks to prevent cities from offering ANY wi-fi service. Frank Rizzo doesn't even mention how valuable library wi-fi is, which is what HB 789 will ban.

He additionally presents FUD by saying that wireless technology is insecure as demonstrated by the hacking of Paris Hilton's cellphone data. This is a flat-out misrepresentation of wireless. Her cellphone, a Sidekick, stores its data (phone numbers, photos, etc.) on a centralized server that is located in a building somewhere. Ms. Hilton's private phone numbers, etc. were comprimised by someone accessing the centralized server, not the information transmitted wirelessly.

Way to twist the facts, Frank. No doubt this guy is on the lobbyist payroll for SBC.


Posted by: seth at March 31, 2005 10:43 AM