During the last six months, the prospects for delivering free high-speed wireless Internet service throughout metropolitan areas went from a sure bet to a sucker bet.
Even as Los Angeles explores building a free or low-cost citywide Wi-Fi system, cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and Houston are delaying or pulling the plug on similar plans.
[...] But don’t expect cities to pull out completely, industry analysts said.
With more Wi-Fi products coming on the scene — such as T-Mobile USA’s Wi-Fi cellphones and Apple Inc.’s iPhone and new iPod Touch — demand for citywide wireless broadband connections should grow. Wi-Fi networks are much faster, more efficient and cheaper to build and operate than cellular systems.
“We’ve gone from one end of the hype meter to the other,” said Craig Settles, an Oakland-based author and communications industry consultant. “We’ll balance this out sooner or later.”
Los Angeles may well become the city to watch as it goes through a laborious process to determine whether a wireless broadband network is needed — and how the service would pay for itself.
Later: Tim Wu, in Slate, explains why it’s been so problematic — Where’s My Free Wi-Fi?
The basic idea of offering Internet access as a public service is sound. The problem is that cities haven’t thought of the Internet as a form of public infrastructure that—like subway lines, sewers, or roads—must be paid for. Instead, cities have labored under the illusion that, somehow, everything could be built easily and for free by private parties. That illusion has run straight into the ancient economics of infrastructure and natural monopoly. The bottom line: City dwellers won’t be able to get high-quality wireless Internet access for free. If they want it, collectively, they’ll have to pay for it.
[...] The lesson here is an old one about the function of government. When it comes to communications, the United States relies on a privateer system: We depend on private companies to perform public callings. That works up to a point, but private industry will build only so much. Real public infrastructure costs real public money. We already know that, in the real world, if you’re not willing to invest in infrastructure, you get what we have: crumbling airports, collapsing bridges, and broken levees. Why did we think that the wireless Internet would be any different?