Muni WiFi May Not Be Solution

Nov 27, 2007
Nicole A. Ozer

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

A recent ballot initiative asked San Franciscans to decide whether they want a citywide municipal WiFi network. Almost two thirds of the city voted yes on measure J, the Citywide Wireless & Internet Network initiative, but they are unlikely to get their wish any time soon. EarthLink, the internet service provider that had planned to partner with San Francisco to provide free and low cost Internet access, has concluded that municipal WiFi networks are not going to be profitable in the near future.

Muni WiFi, once championed as the answer to the expensive and few broadband options in many cities, has recently lost much of its luster. Chicago has cancelled plans to roll out a city-wide network, and other cities are having serious trouble getting their networks off the ground. In many cases, consumers have been much slower to purchase enhanced network access than companies had predicted. In others, the investment necessary to make the technology work was greatly underestimated.

Even as muni WiFi seems to wane, other technologies, such as WiMax and cellular based broadband, may rekindle the idea of city backed access for the masses. For some time now the ACLU of Northern California has championed Internet access for all while also warning that some access schemes, such as many muni WiFi networks, lack privacy policies and controls that must be in place if the Internet is to be a free and open forum.

The ACLU of Northern California has asked policy makers in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley to take a careful look at what they are bargaining away when they accept muni access deals. Many of the business models proposed by muni WiFi operators track who you are, what you're looking at, and your location when you are looking at it.

It is imperative that local governments foster the development of high speed Internet access that does not invade the privacy and free speech of its users. The call for this access was given a boost earlier this month when it was found that broadband adoption may be related to economic growth in California.

According to a recent study undertaken by the Sacramento Regional Research Institute on behalf of AT&T, broadband adoption might be closely tied to California's economic outlook. The study found that there was a strong correlation between increased broadband usage, job creation, and overall payroll growth.

The findings of the study underscore the need for affordable broadband statewide, and suggest that local governments are doing the right thing in supporting broadband as a public utility. It is important, however, that cheap or free broadband access doesn't come with the hidden cost of your privacy and freedom to speak freely.

For more information on the privacy and free speech implications of muni WiFi, see "Don't Let Internet 'Hot Spots' Chill Privacy and Free Speech", a collection of WiFi resources prepared by the ACLU of Northern California.