Government-Controlled Wifi: A Very Bad Idea

The (mostly) good people over at Pacific Research Institute have assembled some excellent commentary opposing Newsom’s municipal wireless plan.

As I’ve said before, I’m strongly opposed to the idea. I like having choices. I’m very happy with my small, geek-friendly ISP, while others may prefer raw download speeds and still others are happy with cheap dialup access. Monopolies, by definition, eliminate choice.

PRI’s paper raises other concerns such as the availability of content blocking for children. I find that one a bit dubious on the surface, since most parents employ such tech at the host (individual computer) level. However, it is entirely possible that the city could buckle to public pressure and block access to content that some find objectionable throughout the network. Or they may employ a new layer of bureaucracy by segregating access – and managing permissions for every user in the city would be an absolute nightmare. Or we may simply find ourselves losing our first amendment rights, since we no longer have the second amendment here to back up the rest.

If you prefer to make your own choices about Internet access click through and let City Hall know that they’re making another big mistake.

22 Comments so far

  1. cd (unregistered) on November 21st, 2005 @ 12:09 am

    I suppose I haven’t read up enough on the issue yet, but I’m confused about how free wifi access decreases your ability to control the way you access the net. As far as I know, it isn’t free access to the exclusion of all other providers.

    Should the access be so good that no one opted to pay for service from some other source, then that’s just the market working its magic an the unfittest dying out as they are supposed to.

    And as far as children’s access to the ‘net goes, well, there’s still no substitute for a good upbringing and some parental supervision – the former being necessary for when the latter isn’t possible. It is, however, possible for children to be taught and to avoid on their own that which is inappropriate.

    Some will be curious and explore – surely. But if that’s a huge concern we’d better close the libraries stat.

  2. cd (unregistered) on November 21st, 2005 @ 12:27 am

    p.s. having read as far as their section on protecting the children on their free wifi fact sheet (, I have to giggle at the thought of black market laptops being dealt to kids who can hide them in their rooms and illicitly access the latest spongebob downloads – since the article cites the evil wifi waves reaching right into the home and invading the one space parents have left to control.

    You’d think they’d have mentioned the outdoors or something. But as it currently stands: free wifi doesn’t corrupt children, some way to access it might – so who’s running around giving kids sidekicks or computers?

  3. mattymatt (unregistered) on November 21st, 2005 @ 9:00 am

    i’ll tell you what’s an even worse idea — putting all of the information on your website in PDF format. argh.

  4. morey (unregistered) on November 21st, 2005 @ 10:18 am

    CD, the free market is only a free market when government stays out of the way. In this case, the gov’t is granting a monopoly to one provider.

    This plan won’t put a significant dent in SBC, but smaller ISPs will certainly feel the pain.

    And yes, I too find PDFs annoying.

  5. Josh Trevi (unregistered) on November 21st, 2005 @ 11:58 am

    Full disclosure: I’m one of the signatories on the PRI letter.

    In answer to CD’s comment, the consequences of the city government granting special privileges to one ISP (which will presumably supply citywide wi-fi) are emphatically not examples of “the market working its magic.” It will be an example of what happens when the government decides to play favorites in the erstwhile private sector: Competitors will find it difficult to compete against the full backing of the local government. Eventually they will withdraw from the market altogether — this is especially true of smaller ISPs with thin profit margins. The net result for the San Francisco consumer will be less choice; meanwhile, the de facto monopolist will feel progressively less market pressure to innovate and improve its services. Since wi-fi technology is hardly static, it’s not difficult to imagine San Francisco being locked into an obsolete wireless standard as a result of this experiment in a decade or so. (See France’s Minitel debacle for an instructive parallel.)

    Let’s also discuss how this is going to be paid for. It’s possible that the city will directly fund the implementation of city wi-fi, in which case the San Franciscan taxpayer will foot the bill. More likely, the recipient of the citywide wi-fi monopoly will self-fund the project through advertising revenues. In which case, picture this: a San Francisco in which your only real ISP choice is the citywide wi-fi — and every web page you view has a little NetZero/Yahoo/Google ad popup on it.

    Finally, while I appreciate that the concerns about content regulation may seem a bit outlandish now, history tells us that when government assumes a responsibility for content, it inevitably ends up attempting to make it conform to some manner of standards. This may seem harmless and even laudatory to many who would be happy to see, say, web pornography disappear: but wait till it happens to online political content. Or religious content. Or “libelous” and “defamatory” content.

    Why even open that door?

    If you have absolute trust in the common sense, competence, and good intentions of the city government in perpetuity — and its ability to thwart the normal mechanisms of the market — then you should support municipal wi-fi. For the rest of us, we ought to think twice about killing the conditions that have already made our hometown one of the most wired in America.

  6. Josh Trevi (unregistered) on November 21st, 2005 @ 11:59 am

    Oh, the PDFs — mea culpa. That was my call, and I forget that not everyone is a happy Mac user. ;-)

  7. SAO (unregistered) on November 21st, 2005 @ 6:11 pm
  8. cd (unregistered) on November 21st, 2005 @ 10:40 pm

    I stil wonder – leaving out the “who pays” question – whether free muni-wifi, in the long run, will mess with small outfits given the ability of those smaller services to change faster with emerging technologies and provide better service for which residents are willing to pay.

    The city provides transportation at a nominal cost. Doesn’t seem to have gotten cars out of SF.

    (I’m mainly devils-advocating here. Plus I tend to have a shade more faith in governments than some others.)

  9. morey (unregistered) on November 21st, 2005 @ 10:59 pm

    The vast majority of people will take what they are given and be done with it. Performance and features are grand, but will usually lose when pitted against “free”. Of course, TANSTAAFL.

    Since I’m an infosec-type guy, I should mention that public wifi networks worry the hell out of me to begin with. Although there are secure ways to use an open network, most people do not take the necessary precautions. I predict a whole lot of password captures and all of the ensuing hilarity that comes with small scale ID theft.

  10. TLB (unregistered) on November 23rd, 2005 @ 12:12 am

    “The city provides transportation at a nominal cost. Doesn’t seem to have gotten cars out of SF.”

    Unless the free Wifi is slow, it’s going to be good enough for almost everyone. Buses, on the other hand, don’t do all the things that private cars can, such as go where you want when you want.

    In addition to blocking content, cities could also monitor the sites that people access. I believe that power companies report customers who use too much power, thinking they might be growing pot. A similar situation could occur with people who visit certain types of sites.

    I believe each Wifi card has a MAC address. I don’t know whether that’s sent with requests, but there might be a way to find out who’s visiting which sites.

  11. Nicole Lee (unregistered) on November 23rd, 2005 @ 4:31 pm

    I really like the idea of free wi-fi everywhere of course, but I can also see the side of those worried about security and losing smaller ISPs. Maybe, as CD mentioned, there’s a way to make this free WiFi a little less desirable. Like banner ads everywhere, or an automatic timeout every 60 minutes, or choppy speeds (the latter two are what I’ve experienced with the Metreon’s free WiFi). With restrictions like those, I would gladly pay more for my own wireless ISP that doesn’t have them.

  12. nick kallen (unregistered) on November 26th, 2005 @ 11:49 pm

    To decry universally government intrusion into the market is to wear a blindfold to the realities of the market. Cities subsidize our infrastructure and thereby make possible our economy.

    Free wi-fi is analagous to roads, bridges, the postal service, electricity, gas, water, public transit, sewage, and refuse disposal. Much of this infrastructure is provided by the government (and some by the market). There is no reason to suppose, aside from a libertarian ideological bias, that the government is worse at this than corporations. And there are plenty of examples to contradict. Free wi-fi is already such an example; the government is working more efficiently than the market, beating the market to the punch.

    To assert these doomsday scenarios such as censorship, child pornography or, even more absurdly, that free wi-fi will eventually lead to poorer infrastructure is simply to assert a hypothetical. There is no evidence one way or another to assume any of these will be true, despite the libertarian bromides.

    Who will benefit from free wi-fi? Consumers. Who will benefit more? Business selling new products to these consumers. Let the government provide the infrastructure, as it does for roads, etc. — because it can do so more quickly than the market. This city’s economy will benefit profoundly; the faster wi-fi is deployed to every corner and alley, the better.

  13. Kurt Rand (unregistered) on November 27th, 2005 @ 8:52 am

    Of the people, by the people, for the people. ‘Government’ isn’t some science fiction overlord, it’s you. Citywide wifi is a good idea. A private matrix of companies should not be allowed to control it. Local funding and local control give the people paying for it insight to and oversight of the operation, at a fair market price, which happens to be very competitive because … there’s no profit margin. The people have no market motivation to soak themselves, unlike the private sector. Better service, better price, whining libertarians. The choice is obvious.

  14. morey (unregistered) on November 27th, 2005 @ 8:58 am

    Nick, your statements seem too bizarre to be real. You wouldn’t be trolling us, would you?

    The government is not beating the market to anything. Broadband has long been available citywide, including free wifi from a number of private endeavors.

    While it is theoretically possible that that gov’t protected monopolies can operate as efficiently as a free market, they rarely do. The reason is that there is simply no incentive to improve in the absence of competition.

  15. buzz (unregistered) on November 29th, 2005 @ 12:41 am

    You can always count on Metroblogging to say all kinds of stupid ass stuff. Did you ever consider the idea that perhaps if internet access was as avaiilable as phone service or (gasp!) air, people would spend more money on the gadgets and ads and whatnots the big dumb corporations who can’t seem to figure out how to treat customers like customers and not criminatls woudl benefit everyone?

    Naw. Your snark beats out reason. Just like the rest of your faux bloggers. How many are actually in SF and how many are imports from LA (Christiana, I’m looking at you) who claim to live here?

    Go back to your ‘burbs and shut up. Just because the rest of the nation is suburban dull doesn’t mean one city of 750,000 has to be as well. Please. Go away!

  16. morey (unregistered) on November 29th, 2005 @ 1:20 am

    Good grief! Logic-impaired Marxist zombies are coming out of the woodwork here!

    Buzz, with your business savvy, you should be out making a killing in the market. Why aren’t you? Is ‘the man’ holding you back?

  17. Buzz (unregistered) on November 29th, 2005 @ 1:28 pm

    You really are this stupid aren’t you? You’re not just making this up?

    If the private sector delivered what customers wanted, instead of offering monopolies, maybe a free market would be fine. Since we don’t have one, we are left with less than perfect choices.

    I’d love to chat more, but you’re a total fucking asshole. I’m no Marxist, and I dare you to call me one in person. Where I can kick the living crap out of you, suburban LA asshole fuck.

  18. Jason D- (unregistered) on November 29th, 2005 @ 2:48 pm

    Dear Douche, I mean “Buzz”. Or should I just call you Greg? Maybe you should get out of the house a bit more and you’d realize that cities are melting pots with people from all over the world living and working and having, much to your chagrin, opposing opinions. Not everyone shares your venom for differing points of view and that’s actually quite nice because you may in time be able to, I don’t know, learn something. In general it shows your lack of worldly experience and all around hatred for people which you can be medicated for if you so choose. I’d recommend it. Seriously. Read a book and go rub one out cause you sound like you need it.

    And if you are so opinionated you do realize that this is a volunteer effort and almost anyone can join? Although threatening a writer pretty much puts you off the list so go fuck yourself like I suggested above.

  19. morey (unregistered) on November 29th, 2005 @ 6:07 pm

    You really are a scintillating conversationist, Buzz. Articulation as fine as yours shouldn’t be wasted here amongst the rabble.

    I do find it interesting that whilst you deny your reddish sympathies, you failed to address my assertion that you are, in fact, a zombie. Nay, in actuality one might consider your derogatory mention of “the living” in your threat to be a sort of acknowledgement of fact. You have no doubt targetted me for my freakishly oversized brain, but I warn you, I’ve dealt with zombies before. You guys are easy kills and cannot succeed without massive numbers.

    If you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way. It’s a long commute back to Simi Valley. :D

  20. cd (unregistered) on November 30th, 2005 @ 9:25 am

    “imports from LA who claim to live here.”

    Um, either we merely claim to live here and therefore don’t live here, or we’re imports who do live here and therefore – well – live here. Pick the insult, I really haven’t the time to respond to both.

    And why call me out directly? I’m open about my background, perspective, and potential biases and you use them against me in a derisive manner? That’s bad manners my friend.

    As Jason alluded to above, we welcome all writers here, so if you feel we aren’t living up the San Francisco ideal (which seems to be isolationist-based hostility, judging by you), you would be free to but finger to keyboard and blog it up whatever way you want.

    But it seems you’d prefer to crap in our sandbox than play in it.

    Of course, perhaps stupidest of all, is that I had been saying free wifi is probably a good idea and was aruging with Morey, et al, about the dangers of government – which I think don’t exist to the same level as they do. I also think having some kind of access for all is good because it helps level the playing field. And that city provided services will always lack the range and possibly quality of private service, so private companies won’t be run out of town anytime soon.

    Perhaps what you haven’t noticed here is that this is a group blog. Meaning Morey’s posts reflect Morey’s views. My posts, reflect my views. Etc, etc. So when you resort to saying Metroblogging sucks based on your quibble with one writer’s opinions – and you’re free to quibble, but you could be more erudite about it – you doing a disservice to the entire ‘sphere.

    A lot of our writers come from other places. Of course, if they’re the ones writing while the San Franciscans stay silent, not really my fucking fault is it, you ignorant, half-cocked prick. Yeah, I come from LA, why don’t you give me shit about my hometown to my face so I can kick YOUR ass.

    Did that get your attention? Thought I’d experiment with your language a bit. Not really my style, but since you prefer attack language, I thought I’d be generous and make the site more interesting for you.

    See, we’re responsive as all hell!!!!!

    So I’ll reiterate my invitation: come write for us. Tell us how it’s done, SF style. Show us the way, the truth, and the light. But don’t sit there shitting on our party. We’re doing the best we can.

  21. cd (unregistered) on November 30th, 2005 @ 9:59 am

    “I’m happy to take comments on my site – all I ask is that you identify who you are, and not hide behind false names. I have put my name out for anyone to read and anyone who hasthe intelligence to get online could contact me directly if they so choose. Be respectful and ID yourself in return. Thanks!”

  22. Steve Zeeser (unregistered) on December 6th, 2005 @ 10:30 pm

    You just shit in your own sandbox.

    Citywide wifi is still a good idea.

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