The Economist has an article (subscribers only) quoting me about municipal WiFi networks, like the one Philadelphia is proposing. Local phone and cable companies have been fighting these proposals, even pushing legislation banning cities from deploying broadband connecting for their residents.
The point I make in the piece is that a city-wide WiFi cloud in an urban area is not identical to the wired broadband networks companies like Verizon and Comcast are deploying. In other words, free or cheap WiFi municipal access doesn’t automatically kill the private broadband market, because these municipal systems don’t provide the same throughput, reliability, or indoor coverage. They help at the margins, for areas that are under-served by the existing broadband options or where those options are too expensive. And they expand the scope of broadband access beyond the home, by covering outdoor areas and public places. They just aren’t equivalent to what the private sector is building, and shouldn’t be precluded on that assumption.
In case it’s not clear from the piece, I’m well aware that nothing about WiFi technically prevents it from being used as a broadband access technology, across large distances. Hundreds of wireless ISPs, mostly in rural areas, use it to provide connectivity where cable modems and DSL aren’t available. In a city, though, the environment is different. WiFi can be a piece of the broadband puzzle there too, which is why municipalities are getting involved. I think that’s a great thing. However, we should be clear on exactly what capabilities those systems provide.