Got WiFi?


I'm sitting here at DIA waiting for a flight to Dallas (thence to London), thinking about medieval tower clocks -- you know, those huge old clocks you see on central squares in places like Prague, Salzburg, and Munich. At the time, those huge clocks were hugely expensive, and in many towns the citizens agreed to special taxes to fund their construction. If there had been libertarians and advocates for the poor back then, I'm sure they both would have complained. After all, the clocks were municipal projects that benefited primarily those who needed to know the time of day before inexpensive pocket watches had been invented -- the burghers, tradespeople, and merchants who were at the forefront of economic and technological change in the 1300s and 1400s.

We could see free municipal wifi as a similar kind of investment. Sure, it benefits primarily those at the forefront of economic and technological change today -- the laptop-toting computer geeks, the PDA-wielding deal makers, the Blackberry-addicted business men and women who are out there making things happen. It doesn't benefit people the poor people who don't have laptops, PDAs, Blackberries, and other kinds of modern gadgetry. But you know what? Poor people don't pay taxes. So at this moment -- as I see a rapacious, aging monopolist called AT&T hit me up for $7.95 for 24 hours of access to the 'net via a hotspot named "Freedomlink" (!) while I'm waiting for my plane to load -- I don't feel like giving a lot of credence to the arguments about municipal wifi taking business away from the long-suffering network operators and not benefiting the poorest Americans.

Naturally there are many arguments against municipal wifi (not least that the cities would probably botch the job). But at least open up the field so that community groups, local businesses, and perhaps consortia of airlines can offer the service themselves. Government-enforced wifi monopolies in public spaces are simply highway robbery.

Peter Saint-Andre > Journal