I was recently asked by a reporter to comment on the pros and cons of municipal Wi-Fi networks (which could also extend to Wi-Fi networks based in libraries and public schools, not to mention your local Starbucks. Here’s my response:The premise behind most Municipal Wi-Fi proposals is that by having low-cost or free Wi-Fi networks available economic development will be facilitated, the ‘digital divide’ between haves and have-nots will be narrowed and that local business communities will grow up around the networks.
The downsides of such a municipal wi-fi plan are considerable as well, unfortunately.
One downside of such systems is that by providing network access for free, municipalities are undercutting the role of private enterprise in establishing and maintaining communication networks. This could have the negative effect of reducing returns from private investments, in turn reducing the incentives for further research and development in the Wi-Fi area. Companies that have invested in alternative networks, likewise, will see revenue streams cut off once wireless-for-free becomes widely available.
The richochet effects are likely to spill into other segments, such as telephony, in which voice over IP (VOIP) threatens the local phone companies’ monopoly over access to the home.
Another downside of municipal wi-fi systems is that they provide open access to all kinds of nasty software. On standalone machines, the spread of viruses and spyware from one to another can be slowed with firewalls and preventive measures. On a network, the integrity of the network is as powerful as the weakest computer on it. With a municipal network, who is going to take responsibility for its functioning?