How to Fix Muni Wi-Fi

As the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” And so it has been with municipal Wi-Fi. While the goal of providing free access to citizens is a noble one, muni W-Fi proponents have misunderstood how the Internet is used in public spaces, primarily by assuming that people who can afford laptops are somehow unable to afford Internet access.

The majority of us have the means to pay for mobile voice and data service, especially now that companies like Metro PCS offer cheap, unlimited plans. However, there is a large population of people who can’t pay rent, much less afford a MacBook or a BlackBerry loaded with all the extras. Perhaps a better solution is to update the concept of lifeline coverage to make it universal and automatic.

It seems reasonable to me to require mobile operators — as a condition for siting cell towers throughout a community — to provide basic service to users who can’t afford it. What might this wireless “lifeline” service look like?

  • 24×7 access to emergency and social services (911, 311, local agencies)
  • 15 minutes per day of voice calls
  • Basic data service, downgraded when the network is in demand from paying users
  • Ability to upgrade to paid plans
  • Paid plans that go delinquent or to zero balance are automatically downgraded to “lifeline” phones with limited service
  • Ability to re-use second-hand phones

In exchange for supporting the concept of universal service, the mobile operators would receive permission to build more cell towers, tax credits and other incentives to add incremental capacity. They’re already building out networks, so the cost of supporting a population of low-impact users should be minimal, especially since they can ration service to non-paying users during peak periods. Many of these people will also upgrade to paid plans when they can afford it.

It seems to me that the proponents of muni Wi-Fi tried to solve a problem that didn’t really exist. Anyone who can afford a laptop can generally afford a cheap DSL or cable connection, or can find a hotspot when they need to get online. Extending broadband Internet to an entire city might be great for road warriors, but for the average person, it’s a solution looking for a problem. The real problem is economics, not access, and that’s something a public-private partnership between cities and mobile operators can solve, and quickly, because it’s not necessary to build an entirely new network to support these users. It might not be necessary to build any new infrastructure if mobile operators can figure out how to ration service during periods of high demand from paying users.

Most of us who read this site take communication for granted, and frankly, have a warped view of what people outside the tech industry need. Talk to a tradesperson or someone who falls under the category of the “working poor” and you’ll get a much different view of what’s important (things like an affordable place to live, basic services, the means to find work and get things done). A cheap or free mobile phone can mean the difference between finding work and not, especially for transient populations (unfortunately a growing population thanks to the recession and mortgage crisis).

A well-designed wireless lifeline service could be developed at little cost to either a city or to mobile operators, yet would enable even the poorest of the poor to have the same access to information, services and jobs that the rest of us take for granted. If it works here, the model could be copied everywhere, especially in developing countries where the gap between the haves and have-nots is even more pronounced.

Brian McConnell is the founder of the Worldwide Lexicon project and Der Mundo.

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