Philly WiFi: The Gloves Come Off

It has been interesting to watch the debate progress over the city of Philadelphia’s plan to create a city-wide outdoor public WiFi network. The project generated a lot of attention when first announced. At that time, Verizon and Comcast didn’t have much to say about it. Then word leaked out that a bill in the Pennsylvania legislature would prohibit Philadelphia and other cities from engaging in such projects. (After a firestorm of protest, Philadelphia got an exception.)

Now that the city has moved along with its plans, the incumbent phone and cable companies are hardening their opposition. They are talking as though the governing is nationalizing broadband access. Nothing could be further from the truth. The city of Philadelphia is doing what cities do — look for ways to provide valuable services to its citizens, when the market doesn’t meet the entire need. It isn’t killing off private competitors. City-run public housing competes with private real estate, and city buses compete with private cabs, but no one seems to have a problem with that.

What gets lost in this debate is that the city and its citizens will benefit in many other ways from a ubiquitous public WiFi network. The city spends millions of dollars on wireless networks for police, fire department, and other city departments. This will decrease costs and greatly increase capabilities for those service. For example, think of how city building inspectors could use the network to access plans and send filings back in real-time. And that’s just the start.

Let’s not allow reflexive opposition to “bureaucracies” to kill a worthwhile program. Sometimes governments do good things too.