Feature Article

October 11, 2013

Is Municipal Free Wi-Fi a Misplaced Effort?

The trend of cities providing free Wi-Fi continues to grow. Currently, 57 cities in the United States have some form of “muni Wi-Fi.” Some of the more recognizable cities include: Boston, Mass.; Houston, Texas; Denver, Colo.; Honolulu, Hawaii; Minneapolis, Minn.; Madison, Wis.; Akron, Ohio; Albany, N.Y.; and Spokane, Wash. 

Los Angeles, Calif., began researching in August what it would take to make this happen for the city. Should it become a reality, muni Wi-Fi in L.A. will, potentially, provide more jobs for the underprivileged, draw more companies to the city, and contribute to the city being known as a tech-friendly place. For many of the smaller cities on the list of 57, muni Wi-Fi could bring huge dividends, should a large company relocate.

Michael Springer, of Media & Tech, says he feels that “a single-minded focus on municipal Wi-Fi is misplaced. To maximize investments in digital infrastructure, local governments should look beyond cosmetic solutions such as municipal Wi-Fi, install a fiber-optic network, and implement a public-private model to finance the construction.” 

Image via Shutterstock

His feelings are that the benefits of municipal Wi-Fi are limited. Many Americans already have Internet, and the majority of the people who have Internet have high-speed Internet, at that.

This causes a problem, because many of the cities that are providing muni Wi-Fi are only offering a download speed of 1 Mbps, compared to the average household speed of 8.6 Mbps. For comparison’s sake, the majority of cellular providers offer a speed of between one and five Mbps on a 3G network, and between five and 17 Mbps on the new LTE networks. Even the local Starbucks gave its customers a 1.5 Mbps connection, until the recent partnership with Google, which brought the speed up to 15 Mbps.

Springer and others question whether citywide free Wi-Fi is even worth having in the cities that are offering it at a slow speed. Many of the cities only offer free Wi-Fi in certain parts of the city. Cities that are providing free Wi-Fi and the ones that are planning on offering it for free should take a closer look at increasing the speed of its broadband as much as the service. It was shown in a study from 2011 that doubling the broadband speed for an economy increased the Gross Domestic Product by 0.3 percent. Springer also said that businesses are more enticed to locate to a city based on the Internet speed, rather than the presence of Wi-Fi. A broadband speed of at least 25-50 Mbps was needed to attract a new business to a city.

Fiber optic systems are what is needed to secure the highest speeds of broadband. Chattanooga, Tenn., began offering fiber optic services in 2012, and it helped generate the city $400 million in new business investments and 6,000 new jobs. By 2014, the city hopes to make $93.6 from the 50,000 subscribers of the fiber optics system.

Edited by Alisen Downey

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