Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does Free Wireless Internet Have A Chance?

In the months following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin made it a priority to have free wireless internet available throughout the city. The local government believed that this would give small businesses a chance to reestablish themselves, even though they may lack a physical location. The service did actually launch in the late part of 2005, but it was taken down less than a year later. What happened?

In the case of New Orleans, a private company began providing access to the area covered by the city owned system. Surprisingly, the service remained free.

I get excited when I think about the prospect of free wireless internet. As a subscriber to the local ISP that has a bit of a monopoly over the area, I have always tried to find a service which would give me the same speed for a lower price. However, if I could get service for free, I may be willing to sacrifice a few Kbps.

EarthLink mentions that higher speed access would be available to residents of the area for a fee. Obviously. I would never expect a company to enter a market without the idea that money could be made. I do think that it is a measure of good will that they had the sense to carry on the free service that the city determined was necessary. While it remains to be seen if the service will continue indefinitely, I see this as an interesting model for other cities that hope to provide better access to their citizenry.

Philadelphia shows the next possible step in the effort. Last year, Philadelphia transferred ownership of its city wide wireless internet service from EarthLink to a local company. It is estimated that about 80% of the city is now covered by the service.

I know that there are other factors involved in arming every citizen with free wireless access. Access is great, but what happens when many people cannot afford a computer. With major cities like New Orleans, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago piloting different programs, we are bound to discover what systems work, what needs improving, and what can be used to increase access to an ever growing population of hungry internet consumers.

So, I do believe that this model does have a chance to be sustainable. Free wireless is obviously something that gets people talking. It helps to create a more even playing field and it gives opportunities to local businesses and residents who may have been left out otherwise. Will this be a quick and painless transition? I think not. Will it ever cover the country? Not likely. However, I don’t believe that slow service or the possibility that a corporation may be involved should put a stop to growth and expansion.


  1. I think that city governments have their own problems to worry about without having to provide wireless internet. The government can easily make a simple program very complicated.

    For the most part, many cities already have free wifi-or close to it. Many public libraries offer wifi to their patrons. And many restaurants like starbucks and mcdonalds offer wifi to their customers.

    As far as businesses, they should stick to buying it from a provider. Businesses need a reliable connection. It is to hard for a government to provide it. Maybe a business should be eligible for a tax break if they buy it themselves.

    It is nice to imagine a day in the not so distant future where wifi will be like cellphone service, avaliable all most anywhere. But unless the federal government wants to provide it, I dont see that happening.

  2. It is absolutely necessary that local governments offer free wireless internet to the lower class. I believe that the easiest way to begin implementing this is to start funding internet cafes, which have been very successful in other countries. But I suppose that the main problem is that we are a individulist/capitalist driven society, where internet cafes would be seen as a threat to mass consumption. If there is going to be any change in local internet access it has to be a movement of the people. I think that this is especially relevant to Detroit . . . where we have limited social services, and a subpar public school system. Free internet in local businesses is all fine and dandy for the middle class with personal computers but what about the people too poor to afford computers?